“Saxtravaganza” with Radnofsky and Friends Showcases Saxophone’s Varied Possibilities

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Kenneth Radnofsky of the New England Conservatory plays the classical saxophone more beautifully, in this writer’s opinion, than anyone else in the world, though he had some heartwarming competition from some of his students at the fascinating “Saxtravaganza” in Jordan Hall on February 17. Copland’s Quiet City (1940) was heard in a “concert adaptation” by Christopher Brellochs, in which the saxophone substituted for the English horn. The saxophone’s tone blended extremely well with the other instruments — clarinet, trumpet, and piano — perhaps even more effectively than the English horn would have in this small grouping. Harold Shapero’s Saxophone Quartet, originally his String Quartet of 1941, was adapted by Pasquale Tassone with Shapero’s advice and blessing. The grouping of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes has been tried by many different composers, but success always hinges on a good performance, and this one, by the NEC Quadrivium Saxophone Quartet, was really excellent. Gil Shohat’s Quintet for saxophone and string quartet (2008) met with only mixed success. Yuan, a saxophone quartet (2008) by Lei Liang, was a relentless study in savage timbres with a full arsenal of avant-garde techniques. [Check title for full review.]    [continued]

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Fine singers, Clever Orchestration, in Handel’s Alcina from Boston Opera Collaborative

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Three-year-old Boston Opera Collaborative is offering Handel’s Alcina with a new production at Massachusetts College of Art, through February 15. The story of Alcina, after Orlando Furioso, is one of those preposterous Baroque plots difficult to summarize or even to remember. Despite this production’s lively stage direction by Andrew Ryker, the best thing to do is to forget the plot and sit back and enjoy the glorious music. This is a treble-voice show, clothed here in 1920s garb. Conducting from the harpsichord, Music Director Paul Cienniwa’s music pacing throughout was expert. He cleverly used violins for instruments that had to be cut from the orchestra, due to budgetary cuts. Each act ended with a touch of Yo-el Cassell’s effective choreography for five dancers. Lead singers Leah Hungerford, Emily Burr, Kristina Riegle, and Brooke Larimer, and all were excellent, especially in Alcina’s anguished lament “Ah! mio cor,” Bradamante’s revenge aria, and Ruggiero’s angry aria, “Sta nell’ircana.” [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Muse and Angel: Schubert’s Winterreise Inspires Composition by McDonald

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The concert given at the Goethe Institut of Boston on Sunday, February 8, featured John McDonald’s new composition for alto sax and piano, Stäudlin as Vogl: Preamble to a Winter Journey, an idea proposed by Philipp Stäudlin, his colleague in the Tufts University Music Department. It was followed by the whole of Schubert’s Winterreise. A year of rehearsing brought McDonald to see Stäudlin on the saxophone in something of the light in which Schubert looked upon his own favorite singer, Johann Michael Vogl- that is, as both muse and angel; accompanying a saxophone instead of a voice brought him an entirely different understanding of the Schubert. McDonald’s piece is clever, hardly to be grasped in just one hearing. It works wonders to put the listener in a frame of mind anticipating Schubert’s more massive composition. Spare but never timid or understated, McDonald’s music evokes Schubert’s, sometimes melodically, often by rhythm and dynamics; but it also stands on its own as a sort of minimalist representation of the passions running through the original work. Stäudlin and McDonald worked through Schubert’s entrancing but profoundly disturbing material in Winterreise with a magic of their own. What a stroke of genius to play the work this way. Even Schubert would have discovered something in the music he had not known was there before. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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“Typhoon”: Cyprien Katsaris’s Boston Piano Recital Debut

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Should I have taken my raincoat along? Inside the intimate recital hall at Boston Conservatory on February 10, luxuriant sounds from a Steinway piano drenched the audience for the Boston piano recital debut of Cyprian Katsaris. His program consisted of piano favorites from the 19th century. Schumann’s popular Arabesque went at higher speed than usual, yet without any of the smallest of details missing. A finger arching above the keyboard signaling a poignant moment, a quizzical expression on his face in reaction to an unexpected phrase and an arm gesturing like that of a conductor quickening the tempo, building up to a climax. However, Katsaris had to come up for air after the slow, inwardly and outwardly probing, second movement of the Schubert Sonata in B-flat Major. He took a big breath, looked at the audience and uttered , “…nice piano.” Expecting to luxuriate in the nostalgic nocturnes and valses of Chopin, I found myself in arid space. Two Liszt pieces and the oft-played The Banjo by American Louis Moreau Gottschalk brought no real change. I listened for American images of this country and the indigenous instrument in The Banjo, but found, instead, more of a “staggering tour de force of sensational pianism” as had been given previously. Still in all, Boston Conservatory students have much to learn from him. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Boston Musica Viva: The Vanishing, The Invisible, and The Hungry

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Music as accompaniment to spoken narration is a tradition in Western music that goes at least as far back as the melodramas of the late 18th century. However, most of the well-known works of this type are from the 20th century, among the most famous of which is Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev. On February 8, Boston Musica Viva under the direction of Richard Pittmann presented a paired-down yet lively performance of this oft-played favorite, along with two new and equally engaging “music-stories” for children. Steve Aveson, who narrated all three works, grabbed the attention of the children, who were engrossed throughout the nearly two-hour show. Andy Vores’s Vanishing Cream created a sound world that is appropriately uncanny. With an odd assortment of instruments, including harpsichord, marimbas, and bundt-cake pans, the music supplies a continuous underscore of high-end radio-play musical effects from which occasionally emerge eerie yet lovely melodies, enhancing an accessibly sophisticated overall sonic atmosphere. Derek Jacoby’s 2008 accompaniment to the Hans Christian Anderson classic, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Despite sporadic references to certain genres – Latin dance, martial fanfares, Classical marches – the music itself was almost distractingly nondescript, often flattening out the narrative. Luckily, the ensemble’s technical wit and Aveson’s narrative skills were able to give the generally gray musical sonorities some luster. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Harp, Horns, and Choir Make Splendid Music

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The poet W. H. Auden disliked the music of Brahms. But he might have thought otherwise, had he heard the performance of Four Songs for women’s chorus, two horns, and harp at Boston’s Church of the Advent on February 6, in a concert co-sponsored by the Harvard Musical Association. It is a pity that this piece is not performed more, a fate that also afflicts Brahms’s other early choral music. The program was top-heavy with Mendelssohn, appropriate for his bicentennial but still leading to a certain lack of variety. The choir’s singing throughout was splendid, but they could certainly have bitten deeper into their German consonants. The second half brought Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria. Audience enthusiasm seemed to build with the return of Holliger for a splendid rendition of Rheinberger’s rarely performed Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen. This concert featured two pieces by Vaughan Williams: an arrangement of his Serenade to Music and Five Mystical Songs. Despite some disparaging remarks about the composer’s output by a discerning American critic, Vaughan Williams is a composer to be reckoned with. His Serenade to Music was a fitting end to a night of splendid music making. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Franco-Flemish Standouts-Wow!

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Schola Cantorum of Boston featured Franco-Flemish standouts of the Renaissance at its concert on February 6, given at Church of Saint John the Evangelist on Beacon Hill. In Ockeghem’s Requiem, Medieval roots grow conspicuously and alternately with Renaissance trend-setting ideas. Complexities so often attributed to Ockeghem’s style disappeared. In their place arose one magnificent canvas, instinctive, never academic. For this composer, and much more so for Josquin and the other younger composers on the program, creating sonic canvases meant making music more readily accessible. The Deploration for Ockeghem, also called Nymphes des bois (“Wood Nymphes”), by Josquin, laments the death of his revered predecessor. Whether about death or life, the motets of these Franco-Flemish composers breathed new life into Church of Saint John the Evangelist, proving a fine acoustical match. This is my first—but definitely not last—time hearing Schola Cantorum of Boston. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Brave New World Offers Admirable Diversity, Inventiveness

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The concert by Brave New Works at Boston Conservatory on February 6 avoided the trap of reflecting the preferences of their adjudicators by featuring not only a collection of works by composers from all over the world, but across genres, styles, and influences. Sunji Hong’s Shades of Raindrops exposed an abundance of compositional intuition, with instrumental virtuosity to showcase the tremendous abilities of the ensemble. Forest Pierce’s The Black Sword of Sappho showed incredibly versatile use of the harp with wildly demanding writing for the voice. Mason Bates’s String Band was easily the unique piece of the evening. The piece quickly introduced a driving rhythmic motor. Percussive noises from pencil erasers and screws placed inside the piano added to the momentum, while nicely blending into the texture. The influence of electronic music as it becomes more and more audible was what really made the piece interesting, but after this new sound environment was reached, the piece hit somewhat of a dead-end meandering around timbres and colors long after they were eliciting any interest. Andy Vores’s Objects and Intervals, featuring Soprano Jennifer Goltz and the entire Brave New Works ensemble, offered some interesting interactions between multiple texts but did little to sustain any tension within the music itself. The piece relied heavily on references; this type of approach seems to support the common “there’s-nothing-new-to-hear” notion, and that we might as well enjoy some mix-mashing of the great masters instead of pushing contemporary music forward. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Emmanuel Music Continues Schumann Concerts with Intensity, Balance, and Grace

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This week’s Schumann offering from Emmanuel Music, now in its fifth year of presenting all of Robert Schumann’s compositions, featured two guest artists, Ya-Fei Chuang and Robert Levin, with Emmanuel Music regulars. Kendra Colton, soprano, and Mark McSweeny, bass, brought out the intensity in Goethe’s Meister poetry, which is largely of loneliness, age, and loss. Ya-Fei Chuang accompanied them with exceptional sensitivity and grace, which we have come to expect from this gifted performer. Too often the sound was full power, which is not needed in the small chamber recital room at Emmanuel. Ya-Fei then played Schumann’s frenetic Toccata in C Major at a seemingly impossible speed – but with great feeling. It was over too soon; the audience gasped for air before wildly applauding. The final work was a moving performance of the Trio in D minor, Opus 63. Rhonda Rider, cello, was particularly effective. Overall, a fabulous concert, greatly enjoyed by the full house. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Christopher Taylor Explores Goldberg Variations on Dual Keyboards

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Christopher Taylor played Goldberg Variations on his own Steinway-Moór piano at the Gardner Museum on February 1. Taylor’s piano is truly a one-of-a-kind. The only one ever made was by piano developer Moór, in 1929. With two keyboards, both hands avoid being “hassled” (Taylor’s word) with frequent crossing over each other, bumping into each other, or winding up on top of each other-things that happen in performances of Goldberg Variations when played on a single standard keyboard. Taylor found new colors with extraordinary touch of keys and pedal, ways of repeating both sections of each variation as an explorer might, changing this, finding that, altering a course for one reason or another. This worked best when the overall sense of the variation was kept intact. His Bach was daring; it soared or danced, often with amazing transparency, though it did raise questions. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Unusual, Thrilling Program by Tetzlaff and Andsnes Brought Ringing Cheers

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Boston is not likely to hear such a thrilling piano-violin concert for a very long time. Both Christian Tetzlaff, violin, and Leif Ove Andsnes, piano, are world-class artists, known everywhere as outstanding soloists. The program was itself unusual, the more so to have begun with the Sonata by Leoš Janácek. He is a Czech nationalist, but hardly in the Germanic Czech line of Smetana and Dvorák; his closest kinship with that tradition is rather like Mussorgsky’s in Russia, with a naturalistic vocal style very like recitative that certainly penetrates his instrumental music. Some would call Brahms’s D minor Sonata, op. 108, composed in 1888, his most successful violin sonata because it is so compactly constructed; it was delightful to hear the lyrical approach in this work, especially in the lovely lullaby that begins the slow movement. Mozart’s F major Sonata, KV 377 (1781), was published as part of a set of six sonatas “for piano or harpsichord, with accompaniment of violin,” a title which fails to do justice to the violin’s equal partnership; one can understand it by noticing that the piano always initiates the principal thematic material. Nobody mentioned that this concert took place on Schubert’s 212th birthday, but to hear his Rondo brillant in B minor, op. 70, D 895 (1826), was thrilling. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Six Berklee Composers, One from Tufts, Offer Sensuous Tango, Sinuous Glissandi, Caressing Sounds

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Berklee College of Music is widely known for jazz and popular music, despite its long-standing commitment to so-called “serious” art. But the serious message at a recent Crosscurrents concert of compositions by six Berklee faculty and John McDonald of Tufts University was unmistakable, no less than the careful craft behind each work. The entire afternoon was fine testimony to the rich variety of Boston concert life in the service of new music. Kari Juusela’s piece was a blend of sweet blues and walking bass with elegant D-Major harmony, answered with minimalist improvisation and steady percussion beat; Ramon Castill’s Spaghettification rates as probably the most avant-garde offering of the afternoon. John McDonald offered two short pieces, one pointillistic and sometimes harsh; the second he called a “distant, tender slow drag,” but the caressing sounds of parallel sixths were the most obvious clue to the ragtime connection. McDonald remained at the piano for two pieces by Francine Trester. Three Dance Stories for piano by Ivana Lisak followed, elegantly played by Irina Bazik. Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Whitman’s War, two poems of Walt Whitman, was the longest and most ambitious work on the program, which ended with Andrew List’s Love Dances for cello and contrabass, ideally performed by Emmanuel Feldman and Pascale Delache-Feldman, who happen to be married. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Dinosaur Annex Performs Adventurous New Works at Young Composers’ Festival

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Overall, the Dinosaur Annex concert of Boston premieres by young composers at the Community Music Center of Boston on January 25 showed a promising array of emerging artists. It reaffirmed my belief that the musical climate for the next generation of composers, more than any time in the last century, will be less restrained by stylistic pigeonholes and the restraints of genres. Daniel Bradshaw’s Synapse was compromised by the string players, who at times seemed uncommitted and removed from the engaging piece, causing some moments of rhythmic drive to lose their potency. Yvonne Lee gave an enrapturing performance of Trevor Gureckis’s Unsound Grounds, for solo piano. The piece was full of character, constantly highlighting a contrast between short notes, long notes, and ornamentations pulsing with the influence of electronic music. I Found it by the Sea, a piece for string trio and piano by Timothy Andres was full of beautiful sounds and truly creative variations on a theme, but was organized over an unnaturally segmented, stop-and-go type of formal structure – somehow reminiscent of the B-track on the MBTA green line. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Mendelssohn Would Have Lauded this BSO Celebration of his 200th Birthday

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The most impressive aspect of the Boston Symphony Orchestra ’s all-Mendelssohn program on January 22 was not of the typical Romantic interpretation, but the subtle Classical elements found in his music. It was magnificent to hear such a fine interpretation under conductor Kurt Mazur of Mendelssohn’s most celebrated works, his Hebrides Overture, Symphony #3 (“Scottish” Symphony), and Symphony #4 (“Italian” Symphony). Symphony Hall, in fact, was modeled after the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where Mendelssohn himself was appointed conductor in the 1830s. It seems serendipitous that all of these elements contributed to a performance that Mendelssohn would have surely lauded. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Collage New Music: Tight Reins and Other Spaces

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David Hoose and Collage New Music made brilliant conversation at Longy recently. Throughout this season, it is honoring Andrew Imbrie, whose music inhabits a contained space. In a few words, Imbrie keeps a tight rein on his music, his Roethke Song offering proof. Once below the somewhat dry and colorless surface of his Earplay Fantasy (1995), a conversation-like composition rich in highly crafted detail emerges. Richard Cornell’s Light of October, a Collage commission premiered in 1998, protracts and zooms and protracts. An abundance of cues in the beautifully descriptive and sensitive instrumental writing of the Yannatos Haiku Cycle (cricket chirping, darting dragon-fly, sea-surf, air stirs, voices of wild ducks) informed the listener more than it seemed to have the noted soprano soloist, Susan Narucki. Unfortunately, I could make out only a few of the words she sang. Jacob Druckman’s Come Round, a set of variations dating from 1992, is outwardly emotional, a phantasmagoria: sweet notes turn angry in a split second. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Harbison “Bout of Un-relatedness” Between Two Chestnuts

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Discovery Ensemble at Emmanuel Church, Boston. Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944) was played in the original version for 13 instruments (flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, strings). This performance, with a clear and luminous sound, was ideally suited to the opulent acoustics of the church. Etymologically, a concerto from its Latin roots is really a struggle, or at least a contest. John Harbison’s Concerto for Oboe, Clarinet, and Strings, composed in 1985, answers this description, a “bout of un-relatedness” as he put it. The result, at least to this listener hearing the work for the first time, was a work in which individual instrumental sound was de-emphasized in favor of an overall texture in which the blend is inescapably spicy, the rapid passagework of the solo instruments fighting at every step. The concert concluded with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major., KV 551, the “Jupiter,” and there were problems, above all in tempi. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Confusion Reigned at Harvard Thanks to Boston’s Youth

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Confusion reigned at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre on January 18 thanks to Boston’s youth-and others-with a semi-staged production of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Boston’s youth could be seen performing with a kind of discipline and engagement rarely found in adult organizations. That was in itself exhilarating. Impeccable, vibrant phrasing rejuvenated this centuries-old score. Even though there was heaviness in the playing once in a while and rigidity in the harpsichord accompaniment, the entire result was, as today’s youth might put it, “awesome.” Creating their share of comic confusion at this special Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra event was a cast of budding professional singers. Oddly, the central figure, Figaro, appeared at times elusive to Eric Downs. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Lively Vivaldi from Venice

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Antonio Vivaldi’s approach to composition was primarily gestural: waves of bristling 16th-notes; hills of terraced sequences; and forests of harmonic progressions both clever and pat, inhabited by the occasional sonic imitations of birds, storms, or shepherds. All do indeed seem to exhaust their possibilities, especially after such a program of eight concerti and three encore pieces as was performed by the Venice Baroque Orchestra on January 17 at Emmanuel Church, Boston. Violinist Giuliano Carmignola, who joined the group as soloist for four of the eight works, added yet another level of excited energy to the music. He did fall prey to occasional slips in intonation, which were either a result of his tendency toward vibrato-less long-tones or of the cold air in the church. Nonetheless, he delivered some engagingly sensitive and often quirky interpretations. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Hidden Gems at Steinert & Sons

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The program on January 16 at Steinert & Sons featured works by the usual big guys: Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Bach, Tchaikovsky. But near the end, pianist Constantine Finehouse announced that he and violinist Olga Kachanova would perform a couple of hidden gems not on the program, a passage from Gluck’s Orfeo and Bartok’s Romanian Dances, which really juiced up the evening. While Kachanova’s performances were poignant throughout the evening, it was refreshing to see her loosen up and have fun with a wildly energetic show of Bartok’s Romanian Dances. The performance was filled with the kind of strident grit that the piece calls for (and rarely receives), exploiting the astounding versatility of the performers. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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BSO Chamber Players: Winds and Strings and Some Odd Things

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Among the standard instrumental combinations the woodwind quintet is an oddball. Although all the members technically belong to the same family, it is a rather dysfunctional one. Each instrument has more characteristics that differ from the others than not, and creating a convincing musical blend of the five is a test of skill for any composer. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Commentary on a Concert: Reflections on Our Musical Wealth

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The musical scene in Boston is well served by our superb Boston Symphony Orchestra. But it is not the only game in town, the sole chance to hear estimable classical music played well. The Big Question has been, does Boston have a community to support these groups? The answer is a resounding “YES” — when they are given adequate publicity. This point has been lost on the main print media in recent years but was evident at the concert put on by the Music Committee of the Friends of the Weston Public Library on January 6. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Boston Baroque Shines

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Boston Baroque rang in the New Year with music by two great stars of that era, namely Bach and Handel. Performing now for over thirty years, BB is well practiced at the art of recreating the splendor and affect of that time. Through the playing of young, gifted Canadian violinist Martinson and accomplished Boston Baroque musicians, the countless notes of the Bach Violin Concerto in E Major found a kind of extraterrestrial life. Young and upcoming soprano star Kristen Watson, from perhaps lesser spoiled skies over Kansas, made it up there, too, with a sparkling interpretation of Handel’s Agrippina condotta a morire. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Beethoven at the Gardner: Uncorked at the Fuga

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On Sunday, December 12, 2008, Paavali Jumppanen wrapped up his version of the complete Beethoven sonatas-32 in all-over a two-year, eight-concert cycle at Boston’s prized Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Even when the going became a bit “abstract” for this listener, there was still the promise of much more to come from this devoutly searching and inviting pianism this newcomer has shown us. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Christmas in (New) England from Old England

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Indescribably ethereal sounds came from a multitude of human voices at the Church of the Advent, where on Friday, December 12, Donald Teeters, The Boston Cecilia and special guests, Exultemus, presented “Christmas in England: Ancient & Modern.” As with winter in New England, so did these many Christmas songs finally begin to take their toll. That feeling of cabin fever and of wanting a change kept creeping in. Not that there were not beautiful sounds everywhere, but that there were not enough colors in the singing, not enough drama, or life, in a word. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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Carter’s Recent Horn Concerto
with What Inspired Him, 85 Years Ago

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to Elliott Carter upon his centenary concluded on December 9 with Principal Horn James Sommerville’s performance of Carter’s Horn Concerto. The soloist has to fight hard to maintain equal standing with the orchestra, even though there are no orchestral horns. At the end of the work, after hanging on seemingly in desperation to a high F, the soloist stared at the sideways-leaning conductor face to face – like a moment of arm-wrestling to see who would give in – and then abruptly the ten-minute concerto was over. The performance we heard of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was rousing and at high emotional pitch. Only a world-class orchestra and conductor can maintain this kind of energy throughout, but there was no doubt at all on Tuesday night. The concert ended with a mighty performance of The Rite of Spring, and once again I think of what a pleasure it was to hear this masterpiece twice in one week. [Click title for full review.]    [continued]

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