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New York Philharmonic Perform Wagner, Beethoven & Brahms

Jaap van Zweden leads the New York Philharmonic with soloist Rudolf Buchbinder at David Geffen Hall. Photo by Chris Lee

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on the afternoon of Friday, January 5th, I had the pleasure of attending an excellent concert—continuing a strong season —presented by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by its Music Director, Jaap van Zweden

The program opened brilliantly with what may have been its highlight, a sterling account of Richard Wagner’s glorious Prelude to Act I of his magnificent opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The celebrated virtuoso, Rudolf Buchbinder, then joined the artists for a marvelous performance—with him playing the composer’s own cadenzas—of Ludwig van Beethoven’s extraordinary Piano Concerto No. 4. The initial Allegro moderato movement begins with a brief, meditative introduction—with proto-Mendelssohnian qualities—and a reflective mood is sustained throughout, although balanced by both playful and dramatic elements. The ensuing Andante con moto is more solemn and inward and almost avant-garde at one point; in contrast, the finale, marked Vivace, is ebullient on the whole, but with both suspenseful and lyrical passages.

The second half of the event was also remarkable, an admirable realization of the beautiful Symphony No. 4 of Johannes Brahms. The first—Allegro non troppo—movement is melodious, deeply Romantic in inspiration, and almost dance-like at times. Much of the succeeding, graceful Andante moderato is affirmative, if more interior in orientation, but also with more robust episodes, while the scherzo that follows, with a tempo of Allegro giocoso, is exuberant, even rambunctious. The memorable finale for many measuresis surprisingly subdued but closes triumphantly. The ensemble, deservedly, was enthusiastically applauded.

Juilliard Orchestra Performs Bruckner at Lincoln Center

Photo by Claudio Papapietro.

At Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, on the evening of Monday, December 11th, I had the considerable privilege to attend a superb concert—it was an excellent performance of Anton Bruckner’s titanic, glorious Symphony No. 8—presented by the impressive musicians of the Juilliard Orchestra under the outstanding direction of guest conductor, Donald Runnicles.

The symphony is Bruckner’s last completed one. Exceptionally helpful notes for this program were produced by Thomas May who “is the English-language editor for the Lucerne Festival and writes about the arts for a wide variety of publications. His books include Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader.” He provides some useful background on this Bruckner masterpiece:

When it was premiered in December 1892, accord- ing to the scholar Benjamin Korstvedt, the Eighth “marked a turning point” in the cultural war between conservatives and the faction that proclaimed Bruckner to be Beethoven’s legitimate heir: “While the concert did not wholly win over Bruckner’s antagonists, it did seem to convince them that, if nothing else, Bruckner had finally secured a lasting place as a symphonist.”

The annotator cites the comment of Robert Simpson, author of The Essence of Bruckner, that “The sweeping dramatic force of the Eighth is almost new in Bruckner.” May adds about the composer:

He was 60 when he began composing it in 1884. The triumphant premiere of the Seventh seemed a long-overdue vindication, a signal that the tide of public opinion had finally shifted in his favor. After three years of labor, Bruckner was eager to show the freshly completed score of the Eighth to Hermann Levi, the eminent first conductor ofParsifal. Levi had helped champion the Seventh, and his opinion mattered greatly to Bruckner. But the Eighth perplexed Levi— another clue as to how different this music is from what preceded it.

Levi’s rejection devastated Bruckner. The composer responded by making radical revisions to the original score he had completed in 1887. This later version, prepared in 1890, was the basis for the first publication as well as the premiere in 1892, which took place in Vienna under the Wagnerian conductor Hans Richter. The extent to which Bruckner’s well-meaning but intrusive assistants imposed their own revisions on this later version—attempting to tailor Bruckner’s conception to contemporary taste—is among the complications subsequent editors have had to address.

Another issue has to do with the composer’s own attitude toward the 1890 revisions, which involved several cuts, some rewriting, and an expanded woodwind section. While the revision improved certain aspects of the music as a whole, some scholars have regretted the cuts that were made, citing them as an example of Bruckner acting against his own better judgment, still shaken as he was by Levi’s rejection.

May quotes the editor of the version played at this concert:

Yet, wrote Leopold Nowak in the preface to his edition of the 1890 version, which he published in 1955—and which we hear in this performance led by Donald Runnicles—“a complete critical edition must not mix its sources: The result would be a score that would not tally with either version and would certainly not be in accordance with Bruckner’s wishes.” The composer’s acceptance of “other people’s opinions,” adds Nowak, “does not warrant ignoring alterations in Bruckner’s own hand.”

The initial movement, marked Allegro moderato, has a solemn, portentous introduction, but the emergence of a lyrical—even pastoral—theme alters the mood; a Wagneriangrandeuris intermittently attained and the movement closes quietly. May remarks that “Bruckner’s 1890 revision underlines the sense of despair, dispensing with the heavy-handed proclamation that originally ended the movement,” and that the composer called this revision the “Death Watch.”

On the next movement, the annotator has this to say:

For the first time in his symphonies, Bruckner positions his Scherzo second in order. Simpson famously compared the mechanistic regularity of its main theme to “the constant thud of a colossal celestial engine beyond even Milton’s imagining.” Bruckner’s manic repetitions at times seem to anticipate aspects of Minimalism. The slower trio introduces another “first time” in Bruckner’s symphonies—the presence of harps [ . . . . ]

The movement, also anAllegro moderato,begins excitingly and is frequently suspenseful and builds to a thrilling finish; the contrasting Trio section provides glimpses of a celestial innocence but does not seem entirely free from an uncharacteristic irony even if this is not inappropriate in ascherzo.

May describes the third movement thus:

Set in D-flat Major, the vast Adagio seems at first to promise peace, yet much of it is imbued with an unexpected yearning. The opening gesture—a slowly syncopated pattern in the low strings—alludes to the “Night of Love” music from the second act ofTristan und Isolde. Yet Bruckner’s sensibility lies worlds apart from Wagner’s.

The movement has an unexpected intensity, almost Mahlerian at moments, but with some reflective passages, although it is nonetheless dramatic at times and here as well there are heavenly intimations. May records that “Following a powerful climax, Bruckner brings the Adagio to a close with a spacious coda.”

The finale opens exhilaratingly but then alternates with music of a sometimes more meditative quality until it reaches an astonishing, fugue-like conclusion.

The musicians deservedly received an enthusiastic ovation.

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Perform Brandenburg Concertos

Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima.

At Alice Tully Hall—on the evening of Tuesday, December 19th—I had the enormous pleasure of attending another superb concert presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: the last of this year’s annual performances of the magnificent Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach.

In an informative set of notes for the program, Laura Keller provides some useful background on the genesis of these works:

They were named after Christian Ludwig, the margrave of Brandenburg, whom Bach met only once—in 1719 during a trip to Berlin. The margrave asked for some of Bach’s music, but it took two years for the composer to deliver, at which time his employer, Prince Leopold of Cöthen, was having financial difficulties and Bach was probably looking for leads on a new job. Bach gathered six concertos with vastly different instrumentations, made revisions, and sent them to the margrave in March 1721. Not only did he not get a job, but there is no record that the margrave ever listened to them or even acknowledged Bach’s gift. The Brandenburgs remained virtually unknown until they were rediscovered and published in 1850.

She adds:

By the time Bach died, his music had fallen out of favor. His unparalleled counterpoint remained an example of the high Baroque style for students and connoisseurs, but it went largely unperformed. It was not until 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, that a wider audience took a renewed interest in his music. An enthusiastic period of Bach performances and research ensued: a full-scale Bach Revival. The rediscovery of the Brandenburgs took another 20 years, but they were eventually published in 1850 as part of the first complete edition of Bach’s works. Around 1880, Bach biographer Philipp Spitta coined the nickname “Brandenburg Concertos” to replace what Bach had called “Six Concerts avec plusieurs instruments” (Six Concertos for various instruments). With those many developments, our modern understanding of the Brandenburgs was created. 

She writes that,

The First Brandenburg Concerto may be the oldest of the six, as there is an early version (without the third movement) believed to have been composed in 1713. It is unclear why Bach added the third movement, as this is the only Brandenburg Concerto with four movements. This concerto calls for the largest ensemble of the six, including a wind section with three oboes, bassoon, and two horns. The winds are featured throughout, but especially in the full-textured first movement and in the last movement, a compilation of dances. The pieces also includes the piccolo violin, a small, higher-pitched violin that essentially disappeared by the 19th century and is best remembered today for its role in this piece and in Bach’s 1731 cantata Wachet auf.

The initial Allegro movement is not without its emotional depths—despite an engaging surface—that come to the fore in the ensuing, somber Adagio—which was used to memorable effect in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s extraordinary 1961 film, Accattone. With the third movement, also marked Allegro, the music returns to a brighter mood, while the finale begins with an elegant Menuet, followed by a somewhat playful but surprisingly austere Trio, and concludes with a Polonaise that contains some of the work’s most energetic moments.

The marvelous soloists in the second concerto were Tara Helen O’Connor on flute, Stephen Taylor on oboe, Stella Chen on violin, and—most prominently—David Washburn on piccolo trumpet. The opening Allegro is sprightly—but again with more serious undercurrents—succeeded by a sober Andante with lyrical qualities and an effervescent finale,with a tempo of Allegro assai.

Keller remarks that,

In the Third Brandenburg, there is no differentiation between soloists and accompanying strings. The nine string players take turns playing solo and ensemble parts. With three violins, three violas, and three cellos playing over the continuo line, it has the most homogenous sound of all the Brandenburgs, a stark contrast to the others. The tightly knit strings work together and play off each other to generate exuberant momentum that sweeps inexorably forward. This is also the shortest of the Brandenburgs, partly because it does not have a slow movement—just two brief chords. The first violinist often plays a short cadenza, or a short movement from another Bach piece, to ornament what would otherwise be a simple half cadence.

The beginning Allegro is bewitching but it too has more profound shadings while the finale, with the same tempo-marking, is more dynamic and is fugue-like in its intricacy, and closer in style to the concertos of Antonio Vivaldi who famously influenced Bach.

For the fourth concerto, the wonderful soloists were Richard Lin on violin, with flutists O’Connor and Demarre McGill. The first movement, an Allegro, is enchanting, with dazzling violin passages, preceding an Andante almost tragic in mood—but with some affirmative elements—and a sparkling Presto finale.

Keller records that,

The Fifth Brandenburg is special, even in this set of highly contrasted concertos. Not only is Bach’s instrument, the harpsichord, included in the group of solo instruments (with flute and violin), but it is the first keyboard concerto of all time. Before this concerto, the harpsichord typically played accompaniment—its solo opportunities came only when it played completely alone. The reason for the unusual choice was probably to feature a new harpsichord, one that Bach brought home from a 1719 trip to Berlin (the same trip on which he met the margrave).

Hyeyeon Park was brilliant on the harpsichord—receiving abundant applause after the first movement—along with McGill on flute and Ani Kavafian on violin. The piece started with a buoyant Allegro that has some darker inflections, continuing with an Affetuoso movement that has an almost elegiac character at times, and ending with another—dance-like—Allegro.

Keller comments that,

Bach wrote the Sixth Brandenburg for another unusual ensemble. It features a pair of solo violas—which in the Baroque era typically played harmony parts within the string ensemble—accompanied by parts for two violas da gamba (here performed on cellos) and continuo. The viola da gamba was the instrument played by Bach’s employer at Cöthen, Prince Leopold, and was usually a solo instrument. “Bach reversed these roles, such that the violas perform virtuosic solo lines while the viols amble along in repeated eighth notes,” writes Bach scholar Michael Marissen. “Pursuing these two radical instrumental treatments within the same work was unprecedented (and wouldn’t be imitated). . . . These kinds of inversions played a significant part in Christian scripture, which frequently proclaims that with God the first shall be last while the last shall be first.”

The admirable soloists here were Lawrence Dutton—formerly of the Emerson String Quartet—and Matthew Lipman. The first movement is a captivating, propulsive Allegro, while the second—marked Adagio ma non tanto—is meditative but also songful and the finale is stately on the whole but with some more forceful passages. The artists received a deservedly enthusiastic ovation.

Off-Broadway Musical Review—Alicia Keys’ “Hell’s Kitchen” at the Public Theater

Hell’s Kitchen
Book by Kristoffer Diaz; music and lyrics by Alicia Keys
Directed by Michael Greif; choreographed by Camille A. Brown
Performances through January 14, 2024
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Maleah Joi Moon (center) and cast in Hell's Kitchen (photo: Joan Marcus)
Alicia Keys joins the long line of pop stars looking to make their mark on the world of stage musicals. Hell’s Kitchen, which comprises songs Keys had already written, recorded and turned into hits as well as new songs created specifically for the show, is a quasi-autobiographical show about a rebellious teenager, Ali, who lives with her harried single mom in a high-rise apartment building in the heart of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and pines for romance with a street drummer named Knuck (the appealing Chris Lee) and a burgeoning musical career as a way out of what she considers a dead-end existence. 
The musical is your garden-variety generation-gap comedy-drama, as Ali’s mom—unsubtly named Jersey—tries to shield her daughter from the temptations she fell prey to herself at the same age, getting pregnant while still very young and immature. Ali’s dad, a musician named Davis (the excellent Brandon Victor Dixon), is charismatic but unreliable. Ali, of course, will have none of what her mom dishes out, fighting back at what she thinks are unfair restrictions. One day, she wanders into her building’s music room and comes until the spell of the wise old Miss Liza Jane (the scene-stealing Kecia Lewis), who becomes a sort of surrogate mother, teaching her the piano and other necessary life lessons. 
Despite the material’s shopworn quality, Hell’s Kitchen is often exuberant and always energetic. Keys’ songs are rhythmically propulsive, and she has already written showstoppers of a sort: “Girl on Fire” is smartly placed near the end of act one, and it’s no surprise that “Empire State of Mind” is the show’s big finale, even if it’s somewhat anticlimactic. Michael Grief directs with a fine sense of proportion of the visual and the dramatic, making great use of Robert Brill’s multi-tier, fire-escape sets, Peter Nigrini’s clever projections and Natasha Katz’s inventive lighting design. And Camille A. Brown’s choreography is as dazzling as Keys’ songs are catchy.
But what makes the show unmissable are the performances of the leads. As Jersey, Shoshana Bean finally has a role worthy of her talent, and she not only acts the hell out of the loving but difficult mom but also lends her powerhouse voice to several songs. Even better—and making an amazing professional debut—is Maleah Joi Moon, who as Ali has a winning stage presence, acting chops, a terrific voice and enough moves to keep up with the ever-dancing ensemble, all the way from Hell's Kitchen to the Public Theater and—in the spring—to Broadway.

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