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Lesser Known Classics at the Mostly Mozart Fest

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Lincoln Center

The first program, entitled "The Singing Heart", in this year's Mostly Mozart Festival—which I attended on the evening of Wednesday, July 26th, at David Geffen Hall and which featured the house orchestra confidently conducted by the enthusiastic music director, Louis Langrée—proved to be an unusually memorable one.

The concert opened with the sublime Kyrie, K. 90, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, gorgeously sung by the appealing Young People's Chorus of New York City, under the direction Francisco J. Núñez. This was followed by a splendid account of the first movement of the same composer's excellent "Haffner" Symphony, with some of the movements interrupted by other works sung by the chorus, in accord with the practice of the time. These included the 19th century American hymn, "Hark, I hear the Harps Eternal", and the Brazilian "Three Indigenous Songs of the Kraó Tribe", as much performance art as beautiful music. After the final two movements of the symphony, the chorus performed the powerful black spiritual, "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel".
 
The choral director's enjoyable arrangement of the children's song, "Ah vous dirai-je, maman" was a prelude to the thrilling finale, Ludwig van Beethoven's superb, rarely performed "Choral Fantasy". The Festival Orchestra and the Young People's Chorus were here joined by the fine Concert Chorale of New York —directed by James Bagwell—along with the precocious pianist, Kit Armstrong, and a sextet of wonderful singers: sopranos Janai Brugger and Brandie Sutton, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenors Jack Swanson and Miles Mykkanen, and basso Adam Lau. An enthusiastic ovation elicited a magnificent encore, Leonard Bernstein's unforgettable finale to Candide,"Make Our Garden Grow".
 
The first week of the festival concluded with its second house orchestra program on the evening of Saturday, July 29th.
 
A lovely pre-concert recital featured Franz Schubert's lyrical, seldom heard Introduction and Variations on "Trockne Blumen" for flute and piano—based on one of the composer's songs from his extraordinary first cycle, Die schöne Müllerin—here effectively realized by flautist Jasmine Choi, accompanied by Roman Rabinovich.
 
After a brief introduction by guest conductor Edward Gardner, the concert proper began superbly with what proved to be the highlight of the evening: a moving account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's rarely performed, glorious Masonic Funeral Music in C minor of 1785.
 
Acclaimed soloist Jeremy Denk then took the stage for a solid reading of Ludwig van Beethoven's ubiquitous Piano Concerto No. 4, in which he played the composer's own cadenza, which is standardly heard. Passionate applause was answered by a welcome encore, the exquisite Andante from Mozart's Sonata in C Major, K. 545.
 
The program concluded gracefully with an enjoyable performance of Schubert's lesser known, elegant Symphony No. 5.

MET Orchestra Perform the Cycles of Mahler

Esa-Pekka Salonen

A glorious season of orchestral music at Carnegie Hall finished this month with three superb concerts featuring the excellent MET Orchestra under the inspired direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, with each program devoted in part to a Gustav Mahler song cycle. The first performance, presented on the evening of Wednesday, May 31st, opened with selections from Mahler's sensuous Des Knaben Wunderhorn sung by two outstanding artists, renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and the fine tenor Matthew Polenzani. Both singers unexpectedly sounded slightly underpowered but the orchestral playing was crystalline. The second half of the program was more impressive with probably the most extraordinary account I have heard in the concert hall of the same composer's frequently performed, magnificent Symphony No. 1, the apotheosis of all three programs.

The next concert—given on the afternoon of Saturday, June 3rd—merited comparable esteem, opening with a sterling reading of Robert Schumann's beautiful Symphony No. 3, the "Rhenish", a work surprisingly not much heard on New York stages lately. The latter half of the program surpassed the first with a stunning version of Mahler's sublime Das Lied von der Erde, showcasing two thrilling singers—the lovely mezzo-soprano, Karen Cargill, and the dynamic tenor, Stuart Skelton—both exquisitely accompanied by the ensemble in another pellucid realization.

The final program—which took place on the evening of the following Tuesday—also satisfied, beginning with an elegant account of Mahler's seldom performed, posthumously published, but gorgeous Blumine. Celebrated virtuoso Christian Tetzlaff then took the stage for a rewarding performance of the wonderful Violin Concerto of Jean Sibelius, a composer with whom the conductor has had a privileged relationship. Vigorous applause earned the audience an enjoyable encore from the soloist: the challenging Presto from the Solo Violin Sonata, BB 124, of Béla Bartók.

The second half of the concert started with the moving Mahler Kindertotenlieder, appealingly sung by the popular mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter, who nonetheless seemed slightly underpowered. The event closed strongly with a compelling rendition of the idiosyncratic, mysterious Sibelius Symphony No. 7. One looks forward enormously to hearing these distinguished musicians again next season.

WOWing Us All at The Apollo Theater This Last Weekend

(L to R) Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Esperanza Spalding

When the Apollo Theater had announced that it would be holding the next Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival recently, it almost seem too good an idea to be believed.

Idee dee DSC02609 copyn its all too-short a time — from Friday, May 4th, to Sunday, May 7th — it provided everything from the WOW Teen Summit featuring a talk by Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe to a day of free panels, workshops, and performances celebrating empowerment and activism. Yet that’s what it did — offering a range of activities that brought together disparate age groups and communities in Harlem to celebrate its community of women.

esper DSC02614 copyIn doing so, it served a set of needs that haven’t been so fulfilled before, rich in creativity and solid in enthusiasm. But of all the events presented at The Apollo  during the Southbank Centre’s WOW Fest, the Abbey Lincoln Tribute held Saturday night was one of the most memorable music performances heard and seen in that august and history-rich performance hall. In a far too-brisk two hours or so, premiere jazz vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves and Esperanza Spalding covered the catalogue of this innovative singer and songwriter. Under the musical direction of noted drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, the evening provided an incredible forum to hear some the finest female voices on any stage, a recollection of a singer/songwriter/actress who shouldn’t be forgotten and a reminder of how she had merge art and activism to fashion an incredibly full life in her 80 years.

By stepping into the Apollo last Saturday to hear the Abbey Lincoln tribute, the audience was transported into a world of fierce and unrelenting passion and aural art. The seamless bonding of these three performers — Bridgewater, Reeves and Spalding — made for a momentous event. 

diane DSC02597 copyThis trio both celebrated and re-energized the songs of a legendary singer who had transformed classic jazz vocals into something richer both of her time and yet timeless. Lincoln had a way to restructuring the framework of jazz tunes to pivot between classic song structures and an avant gardism at the same time.

While Bridgewater was the big gospel-fied power vocalist, Reeves shaded her renditions of Lincoln’s songs with a mellifluous flow up and down the scales, a testing of range and tonality. Spalding offered the alluring sexuality of a singer reminiscent of Billy Holiday’s own sultriness.

That evening made this remarkable weekend all the more remarkable and historic. It will be far too long to wait another year for the next WOW fest. A hurrah for WOW.

 

Bruckner's Middle Symphonies at Carnegie Hall

The extraordinary Anton Bruckner symphony cycle at Carnegie Hall, with the Staatskapelle Berlin under the admirable direction of the renowned Daniel Barenboim, continued impressively with the fourth concert, which was presented on the evening of Monday, January 23rd.

Barenboim and the ensemble beautifully sustained the high level of musicianship they had achieved on the first three nights of the cycle, opening with a luminous performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's lovely penultimate piano concerto, the No. 26 (the "Coronation"), with the maestro conducting from the piano. However, the most sublime music yet heard in the series was the eloquent account of the ensuing, grand Symphony No. 4, the "Romantic"—heard here in the revised, 1878-1880 version—one of Bruckner's most purely accessible essays in the genre. The enthusiasm in the applause following this surpassed that of the previous programs, and understandably so.

The next evening opened with a charming reading of the appealing Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, and Orchestra, controversially attributed to Mozart, with Gregor Witt on oboe, Matthias Glander on clarinet, Mathias Baier on bassoon, and Radovan Vlatković on French horn, each one very fine. The second half of the program was a study in extreme contrast, featuring the titanic Symphony No. 5. From a technical viewpoint this was the most remarkable accomplishment thus far in the cycle, if only for the realization of the awesome finale. Fittingly, Barenboim and the musicians drew enormous applause.

A pinnacle amongst the Mozart works in this series was achieved on the following evening with a dazzling account of the exquisite Piano Concerto No. 22, with Barenboim again conducting from the piano. This was one of the finest presentations of the composer's piano concertos that I have ever heard in the concert hall and the soloist was in supreme form. The astonishing lucidity of the Mozart was even more strikingly equaled in the performance of the challenging Symphony No. 6, heard in an elegant and confident reading that, one hopes, presages further delights to be encountered in the final three concerts of the cycle. The musicians were once again robustly applauded.

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