15 May, 2011

Concert Review: Jupiter String Quartet

Concert Review: Jupiter String Quartet

May 14, 2011, Washington Irving High School
Jupiter String Quartet-Menahem Pressler

We seem to be living in an age with an endless supply of accomplished young chamber ensembles. Personally I think on the average today's string quartet is better than yesteryear's. After hearing the wonderful Parker String Quartet, I was eager to hear the slightly more senior Jupiter String Quartet, and I was not disappointed.

In this somewhat larger hall and sitting further away, the Jupiter had a very different sonority from the Parker. A less dominant first violin, a greater sheen and perhaps more sophisticated ensemble marked this winsome quartet. The first two movements of Beethoven's Op 59/1, played with unanimity and astonishing dynamic turns, showcased their finest quality. No matter whether it was a whisper or a big fortissimo, the sound remained seamlessly integrated, nuanced and unforced, remarkable indeed. The playing in the slow movement was unusually finely detailed, bringing it closer to Beethoven's late works, but a little more episodic. Here, as in the last movement, the first violinist Nelson Lee was less than steady and I was distracted.

Then came Kurtag's 12 Microludes, the same work played by the Parker Quartet. Where else but in NYC do you get to hear a modern work like this twice in one month? And it was interesting because the Jupiter's more finely spun sound and gentler treatment brought a more sophisticated dimension to the work. Wonderful!

The quartet was joined by Menahem Pressler in the second half for the Schumann Piano Quintet, one of my favorite works. The string playing was well nigh perfect but I have to confess that I did not manage to enjoy the pianist. Despite accolades galore, on records I have never taken to the smoothness of the Beaux Arts Trio. Here, the playing of Pressler was quite generalized and devoid of detail and attack. The piano sound was also strangely muted. Well, Pressler is in his eighties now...

Jupiter String Quartet official page

14 May, 2011

Dance Review: NYC Ballet - Balanchine

pic from City Ballet: Agon

Dance Review: NYC Ballet - Balanchine

May 10, 2011, NY State Theater
NYC Ballet-Balanchine

Aside from my fondness of the particular blend of classicism and modernism of Balanchine, I am attracted to his ballets because they use quality music, many of them collaborations with contemporary composers at the time of inception of both the ballet and the music. In terms of understanding of classical music as applied to dance, I feel Balanchine shall never be surpassed.

This program, as others in the series, focuses on the so-called "Black-and White" ballets of the master. First up was the comforting Square Dance, an infusion of classic modernism into American folk dance, danced to the archaic music of Vivaldi and Corelli. The orchestra was excellent; concertmaster is Arturo Delmoni, long familiar to hifi fans, who presumably was the capable soloist in the many solo passages. The conducting by Ryan McAdams seemed more safe than inspired, but perhaps there was little to do in this music.

Both the dance and the music-making reached a very much higher level with Stravinsky's Agon. The orchestra was beautiful in timber and precise in ensemble under the baton of music director Faycal Karoui. The dances were breathtakingly sophisticated (which made the previous program seemed plain), and one felt the dancers' arms and legs breathed together with the music and all became one. Here, the music enhanced the dance, and vice versa.

I was a little less taken with the last piece, Episodes, based on the music of Webern. It was not as beautiful, as inspired and as coherent as Agon, but the music-making was first rate under the baton of the diminutive female conductor Clotilde Otranto, who apparently is a fave with the audience.

What can be better than listening to first-rate music while watching sublime dancing?

NY Times review

10 May, 2011

Concert Review: St Matthew's Passion-Suzuki

Concert Review: St Matthew's Passion-Suzuki

May 7, 2011, Park Ave Christian Church
Yale Schola Cantorum-Juilliard 415-Masaaki Suzuki
Bach St Matthew's Passion

What a fine spring day that positively sings "Das Lied von der Erde"! Suddenly, after the waves of cherry blossom, all the barren trees have become green. Pollens saturate the air and cause New Yorkers much trouble this year. I could barely open my itchy eyes outdoors. It's better indoors and one doesn't need eyes open to enjoy music.

Coming out of the MET, the beautiful weather mandated a long walk towards downtown. Before heading uptown again for the evening concert there was a BBQ dinner. Although cheap eat and the huge restaurant was packed due to impending mother's day, the baby back rib was smoky and full of flavor.

The small and modest church venue was well nigh perfect for the Bach masterpiece. Although a free concert, program notes and libretto were provided. The performance was excellent but missed greatness. For me I would prefer the orchestra to dig in just a little more. The choir was excellent though some of the soloists were just serviceable. Well, some would argue anyway that the Passion's greatest music lie in the chorales, and that proved the case here. Masaaki Suzuki conducted with long lines and tone-painted effectively with the small orchestra at hand. His reading was more animated than his recorded version with the Bach Collegium Japan (BIS), which I do not like.

NY Times review

09 May, 2011

Concert Review: MET-Ariadne auf Naxos

Ariadne and the 3 nymphs (pic from NY Times)

Concert Review: MET-Ariadne auf Naxos

May 7, 2011, matinee, Metropolitan Opera
Richard Strauss-Ariadne auf Naxos-Fabio Luisi

While I love the voice, I am not an inveterate opera fan and often find myself listening to the orchestra more than the singers. My favorite operas are mostly in tortured German, Mozart's Zauberflote, Weber's Die Freishutz, Wagner and Strauss.

This time in NYC, I could not get tickets for the new Robert LePage production of the Ring (getting standing room, sold only on day of performance, is rather impractical for me) , and opted for this Strauss opera. I don't really like the duo tragic-comic nature of this opera, but I always found listening to Strauss' music highly rewarding. Another reason is the conductor Fabio Luisi, who has been making a name for himself in Strauss. There must be some reason why he was picked for a Strauss series with the Dresden orchestra, though I have never heard the recordings (on Sony).

What a splendid and elegant production this was! The island/cave in the opera and the three nymphs were just an eye opener; the busy prologue was also effectively staged. As a production, this one, dating from the 90's, is handily superior to the previous one, which I watched in the 80's. And this opera needs all the help it can get in staging!

My seat was just above the orchestra and it was a marvel to see the unusual reduced orchestra of 37 players; a bit like chamber opera but with keyboard and percussion emphasis. From wikipedia entry on this opera:


Luisi elicited a warm and clean sound from the orchestra, at turns tender or powerful as the music required. Yes, this conductor's reputation is the real thing!

As for the singing, I would refer you to the NYT review below. Gratifyingly, all singers sang with warm expression. For myself, I particularly liked Joyce DiDonato (the Octavian-like composer), who showed great promise in this trouser role. I also liked the crystalline quality of the voice of Kathleen Kim (Zerbinetta). The Ariadne, the huge Violeta Urmana, sang well in a smoky voice, though I would have welcome more tenderness and less gloom. Overall, the singing was not quite up to the level of past MET Strauss singers that I have heard (like Hildegard Behrens, Tatiana Troyanos, Jesse Norman, Maria Ewing, Reri Grist etc) but it was still very much an afternoon well spent.

NY Times review