Atypical Mothers’ Day Fare with Prussian and Russian Passion

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The First Church of Boston was filled on May 9 for the Chamber Music Foundation’s concert featuring works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Jakov Jakoulov. Ellina Blinder, piano, Lilia Muchnik, violin, and Sergey Antonov, cello, maintained a balanced, clear dialogue as Beethoven’s Piano Trio in G, Op. 1 No. 2 ranged from delicately Mozartian to friskily Haydnesque. While Blinder deftly handled the required ebb and flow and Muchnik’s playing was secure and musical, Antonov created a warm, enveloping tone highly evocative of the human voice.

Jakoulov’s Three Hildegard’s Songs is a powerful work that utilizes Hildegard von Bingen’s text and single-line melodies with Jakoulov’s rhythms and harmonies. Jakoulov’s piano accompaniment was simple, direct, growly, forceful, and highly percussive. Mezzo-soprano Miranda Loud’s earthy, passionate interpretation more than lived up to her surname in the final ecstatic verse with a well-rounded tone that reverberated pleasingly in the live acoustic. The overall effect was one of drama and mystery, with perhaps a whiff of the Middle Eastern.

Sonata for Viola and Piano No. 1 was written for Boston Symphony violist Michael Zaretsky, who gave this acerbic, probing work a virtuosic, intentionally scratchy, tone-bending rendition; pianist Yelena Prizant played quite capably within the limited expressive confines of the percussive accompaniment.

Jakoulov’s La Musica Leggera, La Musica Eroica was written in memory of Russian-Israeli poet Michael Gendelev. After reading Gendelev’s poem in its original Russian, Jakoulov guided the ensemble through an intense, heartfelt performance. Once again the piano part, competently performed by Prizant, was highly percussive, with a dynamic range seemingly from forte to fortissississimo (ffff). Cellist Antonov’s thoughtful, attentive playing was white-hot. Quite the dramatic evening; certainly far from typical Mothers’ Day fare.    [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Divine, Deranged, and “Uncomfortable Truths” in Music about Mothers

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“Music about Mothers, from the Divine, to the Deranged” was the program on Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 9) by Cantilena at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington; organist Joshua T. Lawton was the competent piano accompanist. This is Allegra Martin’s first season as director, and programming is her strong suit; the primary interest for this concert was the well-chosen poetry.

Martin wrote in the valuable program notes — with texts, “Today’s program will acknowledge both the transcendent aspect of motherhood and the occasionally uncomfortable day-to-day truths.” A large audience comprising mostly women resonated warmly to the point.

In many ways the loveliest was Bobby McFerrin’s “23rd Psalm,” dedicated to his mother, in the manner of Anglican chant. The centerpiece was a commissioned work by Boston composer Michael J. Veloso setting two poems from Letters to Little Bean, written by Rachel Barenblat during her first successful pregnancy.

Irving Fine’s “Caroline Million” (Isabelle MacMeekin) was the liveliest of the lot; rollicking rhyme pervades the musical texture. Rhythmic repetition appears in both Zae Mann’s Grandma’s Alleluia (Ann Kilkelly)  and “The Stove,” as a mother pounds her stove to bits with a sledgehammer. Perhaps most moving was Gwyneth Walker’s “Mother to Son,” set to the poem by Langston Hughes from The Weary Blues.

In spite of this inventive programming, there was a sameness about the music. The well rehearsed, animated chorus always sang in tune, and their diction was good. Martin’s conducting style is calm; clearly she has a great deal of musical intelligence going for her.      [Click title for full review.]

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Emma Tahmiziàn Débuts at Frederick Piano Collection

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Bulgarian-born pianist Emma Tahmiziàn gave her first recital on the Frederick Piano Collection’s Spring Concert Season (its 25th), entitled “Dancing with Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Dvorák,” yesterday in the Community Church in Ashburnham, MA.  From the 24 historic grand pianos in playing condition in the Collection, she chose the Johann Baptist Streicher (Vienna) built in 1846, one of the more popular instruments among pianists performing on the series. In her comments, she revealed that the timing of this performance also marks her quarter century in the US, where she arrived on 13 May 1985 to participate in the Van Cliburn Competition, in which she received an award.

Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 allowed Tahmiziàn to fully demonstrate and exploit the extremes of the piano’s potential. The second half opened with eight of Brahms’s 16 Walzer, Op. 39, composed in 1865 for piano four-hands, but transcribed two years later by him for two hands in two versions, “simple” and “difficult.” Brahms owned an 1868 Streicher, a different model, but they sounded lovely on this earlier one.

Four Mazurkas by Chopin were perhaps the works that sounded the most exquisite on the instrument, almost as if they had been written for it, although Chopin owned and preferred Pleyels and played Erards. I had wondered how the earlier instrument would work for three of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances from Op. 46 and was pleasantly surprised; Tahmaziàn delivered the necessary colors and power that will make me wish I were hearing them on this piano when I hear them on a Steinway in the future.        [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Pro Arte’s Summer Welcome on Mother’s Day Short on Warmth

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On Mother’s Day, May 9, “Welcome Summer” concertized its way into Sanders Theatre at Harvard University via the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston. Soprano Nina Moe ushered in George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess with loveliness of voice, a very finely tuned glissando. Guest Conductor Joel Smirnoff turned the orchestra into a finely tuned and luxurious accompaniment. All that was lacking was warmth, a motherly sound, an American atmosphere, perhaps, a soloist and a team of musicians fully engaged in their art, with a take loftier than I would have preferred for the American pieces.

Soloists Kristina Nilsson, violin, Nancy Dimock, oboe, Ronald Haroutounian, bassoon and Steve Laven, cello, brought off Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante in a gusty performance. Smirnoff and Pro Arte played up a storm behind them, just the right balance, a most welcome and scintillating escape into another time and place.

Samuel Barber’s setting of the words of the American writer James Agee in Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was not quite realized by the performers. One reason was overly loud playing; the pianissimo at the tail of “Now is the night one blue dew,” which could have been so moving, came rather on the loud side in Nina Moe’s interpretation.

In Zoltán Kodály’s Summer Evening, Pro Arte musicians showed they can handle a lot not only in the way of technique, style and ensemble but at times, more. The English horn solos were filled with beautiful tone. There were nuances, too.

All in all, elevated professionalism could have reached out more toward communication.

[Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Stepner Delivers Mother’s Day Gift with Bach Chaconne

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It is always an important event when a whole concert is devoted to Bach’s solo violin music, as was Daniel Stepner’s “Mother’s Day Concert: Bouquet of Partitas,” for solo violin on Sunday afternoon, May 9, at Remis Auditorium at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Stepner needs little introduction; he has enjoyed a long career as a Baroque violinist and pedagogue and unquestionably feels he has insightful ideas to contribute about approaches to the text, about Baroque bowing, style, rubato, interpretation, and ornamentation. Stepping into his teaching mode, he made up for lack of program notes by speaking informally during the program.

He began with the famously exuberant Preludio of the joyous Partita III in E Major (BWV 1006). He then spoke for a few minutes about the provenance of the next five movements.

The Partita I in B Minor (BWV 1002) consists of four movements, each of which has a “Double” or variation, which Stepner explained was like a shadow movement, or a Doppelganger.

Much that seemed to be nerves were shaken off during intermission, and Stepner played theViolin Partita in D minor (BWV 1004) with much more command than the first half of the program. The sublime last movement, the Chaconne, with its 64 variations, is on many musician’s short lists of greatest pieces ever written, and no doubt Stepner has performed and rethought it for decades. Like the rest of this partita, it received a thoughtful, lovely reading. Mother’s Day gifts don’t get any better than the Bach Chaconne — on any instrument.          [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Maniaci’s Natural Soprano Shone in Mozart Arias

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Boston Baroque performed an all-Mozart program on Friday, May 7, in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in a program featuring virtuoso arias that in Mozart’s day would have been performed by a male castrato. Michael Maniaci, on the other hand, is a natural male soprano, not a counter-tenor. He is able to sing the most demanding arias intended originally for a castrato singer with unusual clarity and purity of intonation as well as staying power.

Supporting the ensemble of nimble strings and winds, pairs of natural horns and trumpets provided rhythmic articulation and harmonic weight, crisply reinforced by John Grimes’s timpani, in the overture to Mozart’s one-act opera from Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario).

In “Il tenero momento,” and ”Ah se a morirmi chiama,” Maniaci conveyed emotional tension in a bright, clear tone, a judicious use of vibrato for expressive effect, subtle  coloring of long held notes, and inventive ornamentation. His voice shone in legato style in the aria “Tu virginum corona,” followed by the supremely joyful coloratura Alleluia.

Pearlman conveyed the essentially ceremonial character of the overture of La clemenza di Tito, while making the most of its rich orchestration, particularly in the writing for winds, and bringing out the lively fugato in the middle section with incisive clarity. Sesto’s aria “Deh, per questo istante solo,” brought Maniaci’s dramatic skills to the fore from the moving Adagio to the anguished frenzy of the Allegro conclusion.

The evening concluded on a positive note with a spirited performance of the “Haffner” Symphony No. 35.             [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Three Claims on Jerusalem in Early Songs, Instruments, Recitations

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In a plea for heavenly and earthly peace, a supremely talented group of singers and instrumentalists led by viola da gamba and vielle player, conductor, and composer Jordi Savall and Monserrat Figueras, with Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and the Sufi group Al-Darwish, gathered in Sanders Theatre on May 5 to celebrate three great monotheistic religions, all claiming Jerusalem as their spiritual home.

A rousing “fanfare of Jericho” led to Monserrat Figueras’s exquisite singing of a mystical 3rd-century B.C. Greek text to an Aramaic melody, then a text from the Koran sung by a male choir, followed by a 13th-century polyphonic Latin motet on a Christian (Cathar) Apocalyptic text.

Jerusalem as a Jewish city from the time of David to its liberation in 164 B.C.  was followed by Medieval Jerusalem as the focal point of the Crusades. The highlight of the Arabic and Ottoman segment was Al-Darwish from Galilee, with white-skirted Khaled Abu Ali executing a slowly twirling dance.

Jerusalem as a city of refuge and exile was presented in a series of haunting laments. In a final plea for earthly peace, a simple melody handed down in several oral traditions was sung first by individual participants in their respective languages, then by all the performers in a multilingual choral version symbolizing the unifying power of music. A fanfare of shofars, oriental trumpets, and percussion, “Against the barriers of the Spirit,” concluded the evening on a hopeful note.

English translations projected on a wide screen and extensive program notes were helpful. Notwithstanding star performances and laudable purpose, the essential similarity did not add up to a meaningful presentation of fascinating yet unfamiliar musical traditions. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Spectrum of Moods in Child’s Song of Liberty at MIT

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A spectrum of moods ranges through the five pieces of Peter Child’s fine new choral work, Song of Liberty: A Blake Cantata, for soloists, chorus, strings and percussion, premiered on April 30 in Kresge Auditorium by the MIT Concert Choir conducted by William Cutter. The title suggests Independence Day, but the five movements on various William Blake texts give no hint of any such narrow patriotism until the fifth chorus, taken from Blake’s own “Song of Liberty.”

The strange compulsions of the mystic Blake texts kept reminding me of another powerful Blake composer, William Bolcom, whose Eighth Symphony, with chorus, was premiered in Boston last year. Child’s new work is transparent and proportioned where Bolcom’s is massive and difficult to penetrate psychologically. Even so, I felt that Song of Liberty was a bit too short; it might profit by the addition of three or four minutes of music that would make further use of the solo voices.

A few of my prejudices about Ralph Vaughan Williams are fortified by  Dona nobis pacem, a significant and well-known antiwar elegy composed in 1935 mostly on texts from Walt Whitman, Psalms, Old Testament prophets, and the Ordinary of the Mass. And yet I was genuinely moved by moments that had not struck me before; the really first-rate quality of the performance persuaded me that I should learn to appreciate this work more. I was also glad to see four pages of helpful program notes by Ahmed E. Ismail. But as long as the message is needed, we should hear such music.          [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Orpheus in the Upperworld

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A chanterelle is a highly desirable kind of mushroom, or a German music publishing company (for classical guitar music), or (in French) a decoy, or a musical bottle. More likely its meaning (again in French) as the highest string of any stringed instrument is the one intended by the Ensemble Chanterelle, comprising Sally Sanford, soprano, Catherine Liddell, theorbo, and Brent Wissick, viola da gamba. They performed the short version of their available longer program, “Orpheus Old and New” during a noon-hour concert at the Boston Athenaeum on Thursday, May 6, 2010. The beautiful, resonant room was full, and as Wissick commented afterwards, the audience of all ages was fully “with us” in their enthusiasm. The ensemble was co-founded by Sanford and Liddell in 1984 and on this occasion gave a good demonstration of their Website’s description of their performances: “warm and engaging,” combining “humor, drama, passion and virtuosity with imaginative and innovative programming.”   [Click title for full review] [continued]

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La Grande-Duchesse Fetching Franco-Bostonian Entertainment

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On May 4 at the Cutler Majestic Theater, Opera Boston presented its closing-night performance of Jacques Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein. The generally satisfying and wholly entertaining performance successfully avoided the pit-and pratfalls often associated with this genre.  Much of Offenbach’s appeal lies not only in his clever and catchy tunes, but also in the social and political satire.  In lesser productions, this often gets misinterpreted as simple slapstick, but director David Kneus was able to make the show funny — innuendos and all — without having it degenerate into farce.

A great part of this success was thanks to the cast, who sang their numbers in French but spoke their dialogue in English, an effective (and historically precedented) theatrical device. Stephanie Blythe cut a whimsically imposing figure as the Grande-Duchesse. Her rich, Marilyn Horne-like voice filled the hall with a stunning presence that took some getting used to in this light-opera context. Everyone on stage was clearly having a grand old time, and it was infectious; a good thing considering the three-hour length of the work.

Robert Perdziola’s set-design was endearingly simple and probably close, at least in spirit, to what the original production might have looked like.  Although music director Gil Rose was unable to capture the burgundy-hued brightness and Parisian sparkle that really make Offenbach’s music come alive, his tempi were brisk enough to keep the momentum flowing. The orchestra was beautifully balanced, and blended well with the singers.  In fact, all the elements of this attractive production came together for a fetching bit of Franco-Bostonian entertainment.            [Click title for full review.]

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Music from the Frederick Collection Begins Festival Season

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At 4 in the afternoon this second Sunday in May (9), pianist Emma Tahmiziàn will play the first of Schumann’s 18 Davidsbündler-Tänze, finished in 1837, on a remarkable instrument. A piano made in 1846 by Johann Baptist Streicher, from Vienna, impressed her powerfully and indelibly during her unexpected encounter with it last summer. She resolved to take up the challenge of playing music she knows well on this historic instrument, of whose existence she had been entirely unaware, and whose sonic vocabulary presented her with new, unfamiliar interpretive challenges. In a conversation this week, Ms. Tahmiziàn exclaimed, with simplicity and characteristic spark, “Clara Schumann and Liszt… I’m playing their exact instrument this Sunday!” She says that the elegant Streicher grand summoned forth tone production and dynamic layers that she carries close to her heart, and which she had never before felt she could achieve so fully. [continued]

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Organist Christian Lane Bids Fisk Organ An Elegant Farewell

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For background on the instrument played for this program, see the article here.

Monday evening, May 3rd, at The Memorial Church, Harvard University, was an occasion of endings and beginnings, when a large audience gathered to bid farewell to Charles Fisk’s controversial organ from 1967. The first four-manual mechanical-action built in America in the 20th century, the Fisk organ was a beacon in a return to classic principles in organ construction and tone. But its location within the Appleton Chapel portion of  Memorial Church was always a compromise, given the unusual acoustical properties of the conjoined spaces, and its reception was decidedly mixed.

Understanding the organ’s compromised existence in the context of the original great musical expectations for it in 1967 appeared to be a theme of Monday night’s concert, given by Christian Lane, Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster. The far-ranging program was carefully chosen to honor those who had played in the first several dedication years, and it was delightful for this listener to recall the likes of E. Power Biggs, John Ferris, and Anton Heiller.            [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Profundity, Punditry Pervade Quasthoff Recital

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German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff and pianist Justus Zeyen offered a rich recital of Brahms, Schubert, and Frank Martin vocal works at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall Sunday afternoon May 2nd.  The Celebrity Series of Boston presented the concert.

By now there is no real disagreement about the artistry that Thomas Quasthoff brings to all of his singing.  All the world is his stage these days.  Abbado, Levine and Rattle want him for their concerts, and he garners paeans of praise from the music critics across the globe who hear him.  Thus there was great anticipation within Jordan Hall before Quasthoff and his comradely accompanist Justus Zeyen emerged from the stage door to begin their “journey,” as Quasthoff described it in a short speech before he began to sing.  That speech, plus several other “entre-nous” moments of palaver with the audience served as an intriguing window into this artist’s complicated and focused psyche, but I’m not so sure that these extras-musical moments helped elevate the proceedings.  More about that later.    [Click title for full review] [continued]

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NE Philharmonic’s Ambitious Program: Harbison, Warshaw, Stravinsky, and Violinist Freshman in Ravel

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The New England Philharmonic program was ambitious: all the works were written in the 20th century, from Stravinsky’s 1917 Song of the Nightingale to Dalit Warshaw’s 2000 Camille’s Dance. The only relatively familiar work was Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane, featuring the 16-year-old Jaclyn Freshman, who copped this year’s NE Phil Young Artists Competition. On top of this, we were given a rare hearing of John Harbison’s Symphony No. 2 from 1986.

The Harbison, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, is full of delights. Mr. Pittman and ensemble attacked this difficult work with obvious relish and dedication, though there were occasions when one wondered if things were hanging by their fingernails.

Ms. Freshman tore into the lengthy cadenza that opens Tzigane with relish, a delicious plummy tone, and her runs were a hit: impeccably, impressively clear. The orchestral accompaniment was not always quite so clear; at points it seemed that the soloist was leading the orchestra a merry chase.

Warshaw’s Camille’s Dance, on three sculptures by Camille Claudel, begins with a flourish and a woozy waltz riff. The conclusion is accomplished effectively with doomy portents in lower winds. In between, we were less impressed: for a dance-themed work it proceeded rather much in starts and stops, with overuse of Bartók pizzicati.

Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale stood on the cusp of his change in idiom from the lush and colorful soundscapes of his three Diaghilev ballets to austere neoclassicism. But just as the music falls between two stools, so did the performance—not enough sheen for a Firebird successor, not enough brittleness for a Pulcinella preview.                     [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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H & H Orchestra, Chorus Shone, Soloists Less So in Balanced Bach Program

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In his final concert of his inaugural season as Artistic Director of the Handel and Haydn Society on April 30 in Symphony Hall, the English conductor Harry Christophers chose J. S. Bach as his sole composer. The program was well balanced, with two motets starting the two halves and two cantatas closing them. Two instrumental pieces were in their midst.

The motets “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” and“Der Geist hilf unser Schwachheit auf,” are among Bach’s most difficult choral works, and the chorus did splendidly, as they did with the cantata “Nun ist das Heil and die Kraft.” Harpsichordist John Finney distinguished himself and violinist Daniel Stepner was his usual excellent self in Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Perhaps because of the size of Symphony Hall, one had a hard time making out Christopher Krueger’s flute line, although Alan Winkler’s German harpsichord sounded fine.

The Concerto in D minor for Two Violins featuring Dan Stepner and Linda Quan was, as the English like to say, gob-smackingly good.

Finney further distinguished himself as organist in “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir.” The soloists, tenor Ryan Turner, bass Bradford Gliem, soprano Lydia Brotherton, and alto Thea Lobo, sang separate arias and recitatives in the traditional cantata way. That said, it pains me to say that the soloists, all drawn from the chorus, were the weakest part of the program. Perhaps that is also due to the venue.        [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Variations Figured in Levin and Chuang’s Two-Piano Recital

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John Harbison’s Diamond Watch: Double Play was performed by Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang as the climax to a fine recital for this rarely heard medium of two pianos at MIT on April 30. The acoustics of the demi-spherical Kresge Auditorium are very capricious, but the husband-and-wife team of Levin-Chuang turned in a brilliant result in a hall that was almost filled. One foresees a wide popularity for this piece, honoring MIT Professor Peter Diamond, a passionate fan of the Boston Red Sox.

Like other Rachmaninoff’s works, Second Suite for two pianos sometimes sprawls, but the textural thickness and abundance of rapidly-noodling inner parts are a more serious problem, more than compensated by the melodic freedom  and by the well-wrought tonal scheme which adds drama in the fast movements and lyrical expressiveness in the slow. It was hard to hear all of these at once, when the muddied middle-register sound seemed to overpower both the upper and lower. I would have been happy to hear this big piece played less forcefully and in a smaller, more intimate hall.

I have heard Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini played successfully at slower tempo, but the momentum and zing of this performance were infectious.

Poulenc’s Sonata for two pianos shows his characteristic harmonic language, sometimes like neoclassical Stravinsky and Prokofiev together and leavened with Mozart. The third develops this kind of music into an eloquent and even amorous song; it was good to hear it at reduced dynamic where the texture was full but every note sounded clearly.                        [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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BSO Colleagues Honor American-Japanese Cultural Connection with Mozart

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Boston Symphony Orchestra Assistant Principal oboist Keisuke Wakao founded the American-Japanese Cultural Concert Series “to collaborate in offering beautiful music to the world” in informal and cordial settings. This year he expanded it to three different concerts, at the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill on April 30 (subject of this review), and, coming up, at the First Church in Boston, Sunday, May 2, at 4:30 p.m., and on Monday in Lenox.

Wakao’s core group are colleagues in the BSO, on this occasion Richard Sebring, horn; Richard Ranti, bassoon; the Russian Alexander Velinzon and the Chinese Yuncong Zhang, violins; Canadian Rebecca Gitter, viola; and Romanian Mihail Jojatu, violoncello. For this all-Mozart concert they were joined by Emanuel Ax, piano, and Japanese Masaharu Yamamoto, clarinet.

Wakao performed Mozart’s Quartet in F major, K. 370, for oboe and string trio with great dramatic flair, yet always in touch with his companions. His high pianissimo enabled astonishing performances of long upward runs at a sweeping decrescendo. His colleagues made true chamber music, playful and free while maintaining a tight-knit unit.

Unfortunately, the tempo and dynamics of all three movements Mozart’s Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon in E-flat major, K. 452 were the same, and a bit plodding.

The string players and a second violin (Yuncong Zhang, who joined the BSO just this year), were all off and running on a really beautiful performance of Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A major, K. 581 also with guest clarinetist Masaharu Yamamoto.        [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Familiar Friends Close Out Unpredictable BSO Season In Rousing Fashion

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Bernard Haitink, BSO conductor emeritus, took the podium for the first of three performances of the orchestra’s final program of the ’09-’10 season Thursday evening, April 29 at Symphony Hall.

Maestro Haitink guided the orchestra in an elegant rendition of Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 2. One senses that Beethoven struggled mightily to keep this pseudo-symphony from bursting its overture-ian britches; amusingly, he resorted to using a pair of trumpet fanfares to rein in the nearly out-of-control development.

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Opus 58, written when Beethoven was in his mid 30s, featured the inestimable Emanuel Ax at the keyboard. This concerto features an extremely talkative piano, and Ax made its voice sparkle and breathe like a living thing. He played with a firm legato that resulted in ringing tones and a melodic line that stood out in sharp relief as his fingers spidered nimbly up and down the keyboard. Guessing, however, that Beethoven’s rendition might have been characterized by a tad less in the way of control and reserve.

In Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, one of his most accessible and most popular compositions, all animals in the musical zoo get a chance to squeak, squawk, quack, purr, and roar. The exposed instrumental parts and exquisitely schizophrenic nature of the melodies are a challenge for both players and conductor alike. Haitink’s proved highly effective at navigating the orchestra through the sinuous twists and unpredictable turns of the music, and the instrumentalists were more than up to their individual challenges.   [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Goldmine of Saxes, Bonus of Horns Adorn Alea III Program at Tsai

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The April 28 concert by Alea III at BU’s Tsai Performance Center was a showcase for formidable playing by soloists Tsuyoshi Honjo on saxophones, Eric Ruske, French horn, and the members of the Radnofsky Ensemble and the Boston University Horn Studio. It afforded, as well, a chance to hear a highly varied repertoire of works for these groupings, some aided by electronics and/or percussion, mixing lighter fare with some surprisingly meaty content.

Honjo demonstrated remarkable control and technical prowess, beautifully shaping the dynamic swells, glissandi and other tone-bending required by Georgia Spiropoulos’s Saksti. Another lighthearted work, Perpetuum Mobile, a by the then-22-year-old Gunther Schuller, was intended as an homage to Poulenc and Françaix.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Duo Sonata for Two Baritone Saxophones, far and away the most substantive work on the program, builds inexorably to a searing climax of great emotional and moral force, alternating melodic fragments with sonorous hymn-like homophony. la grenouille by Eric Hewitt for saxes, horns and percussion makes some lovely sounds, evoking classic Ligeti without the angst.

Mr. Ruske, who directs BU’s Horn Seminar, conveyed the formidably virtuosic writing for solo horn in Music for 9 by Alea’s music director Theodore Antoniou with an almost casual air, magnificent tone, and subtle phrasing. Mr. Hewitt, conducting, held all together perfectly.

Another duet for saxophone (Mr. Honjo) and electronics (this and the Spiropoulos ably engineered by Gabriel Solomon) ensued, this from Pierre Boulez, the Boston première of his Dialogue de l’ombre double. Consummately crafted as well was Mr. Honjo’s performance, a virtuoso turn at all levels.

Saxissimo by the American expat Drake Mabry was another knees-up for the Radnofsky Ensemble. Deep it wasn’t, but fun it was.             [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Patrician Pollini Exalts Chopin, Matchless Innovator of the Piano

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Maurizio Pollini, a legendary Chopin interpreter, established an intense, austerely focused atmosphere in which the inventiveness and brilliance of Frédéric Chopin, not of his interpreter, were ravishingly on display at the Celebrity Series concert in Symphony Hall on April 25. Mr. Pollini’s supreme economy of movement and slight, sure gestures make one think of the word “patrician.”

Mr. Pollini’s beautifully processional opening of the Fantasie in F minor gave notice of the rigor and precision with which he would play the music. My ears soon confirmed a piano well outside our norm, Mr. Pollini’s touring Hamburg Steinway-Fabbrini concert grand.

Mr. Pollini played every note of four Mazurkas (op. 30) with complete lack of ambiguity and brought such distinct shadings of forte dynamics to bear in the swirling, strange Sonata No. 2 in B-flat, that these gradations became an independent expressive element. The stillest moments into the first of Two Nocturnes (op. 48), got that way instantly, which is magic. The largest sonic excursion came in the tempestuous Polonaise in F-sharp minor.

Ballade No. 4 in F minor moved too quickly for its languor or lyricism to emerge, and Polonaise in A-flat seemed overblown. The two marvellously contrasting encores reestablished some of what the final two scheduled works had drifted away from and proclaimed Pollini’s after-hours delight in sharing a final few glimpses of Chopin, the incomparable and still unsurpassed pianistic innovator. Mr. Pollini evoked the most beautiful, transparent sounds of the day with the haunting, ephemeral Berceuse in D-flat. You will have to live a long life to hear Chopin of such delicate, jeweled transparency in concert.         [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Expanding the Bounds of the Cello at the New Paramount

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The Celebrity Series presented cellist Maya Beiser at the newly renovated Paramount Theatre in a multi-media concert entitled, “World to Come” on Friday, April 23. Baiser made the case that whether recorded or live, the cello voices were equally important and musically viable with an arrangement of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres for solo cello and four pre-recorded, multi-track cellos (all of them recorded by Beiser herself.)

Unfortunately, the rest of the concert had a wearing sameness of sound; if everything is equally important, nothing is important at all. It’s possible that these problems were due to the sound system and/or the acoustic in the newly renovated Paramount Theatre. The overriding dynamic level of the amplified cello seemed loud and strident, unmodulated, and without vibrato. Sometimes that was appropriate, as in Khse Buon by Chinary Ung.

Golijov’s Mariel was lyrical and singing. And in Like Smoke, a 13th-century arranged by Evan Zipporyn, Beiser’s actual singing voice carried one of the three melodic strands. Seven images of Baiser appeared behind her in Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint. “Which of these is not like the other” ultimately detracted from the music. David Lang’s World to Come, with video by Irit Batsry, was slightly dizzying, but it did offer an alternative focus to the sound of many tracks and one solo cello.

Maya Beiser is a free spirit and an intrepid musician. If the music that she inspires were more attuned to the actual sound that is created, her concepts would be more compelling for the listener and her voice would carry further.             [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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The Coming of Light: Winsor Music Premieres Lieberson

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On April 25, The Winsor Quartet (Peggy Pearson, oboe; Randy Hiller, violin; Drew Ricciardi, viola; Tony Rymer, cello) featured refreshing interpretations of Beethoven and Bach as well as the Boston premiere of Peter Lieberson’s cycle, The Coming of Light. Among featured musicians were tenor Frank Kelley, baritone Sumner Thomson, soprano Kasey Fahy, and the Boston Children’s Chorus led by director Anthony Trecek-King.

Beethoven’s Quintet in C major, Op. 29 was arranged to include the oboe — for the most part, replacing a violin. The oboe gives a beautiful new timbral element to the piece and illuminates some of the inner-voice counterpoint with an interesting coloristic gleam.

Peter Lieberson’s The Coming of Light was co-commissioned by Winsor Music and the Chicago Chamber Musicians for the centennial of the dedication of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple. Set to two poems each by John Ashbery, Shakespeare, and Mark Strand for baritone, oboe, and string quartet, it relies more on ideas of impermanence and love. Sumner Thomson’s voice fit the ensemble and the composition perfectly. The performers were constantly engaged (even when the music was not engaging). Pearson’s lyricism as lines between the oboe and baritone mingled was definitely a highlight of the evening.

The Bach Cantata 159, “Sehet, wir gehen hinauf gen Jerusalem” pulled the full forces of the evening’s performers together, with the addition of Kasey Fahy, Jazimina MacNeil, Kelley, and Boston Children’s Chorus. Thompson’s enchanting and powerful voice was most enthralling when set against mezzo MacNeil’s euphoric placid tone, which meshed perfectly with the oboe in the second aria and chorale. The Chorus provided wonderful depth to the closing chorale and a powerful finale to the evening.      [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Contemporary Music Can Be Worth It

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Pianist Michelle Kelley, at Steinert & Sons on Friday (April 23), proved how exciting a program of new and recent works for piano can be. All six composers (John Craig Cooper, Ruth Lomon, Marti Epstein, Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee, John McDonald and Donal Fox) are from Boston and were able to attend.

Cooper’s Three New England Scapes was performed by Kelley with an appealing, crisp directness. The earliest music on this program was Esquisses (Sketches) by Ruth Lomon. Marie’s Waltz, was one of three pieces by Marti Epstein, receded in a ghostly fade-out that Kelley controlled with skill, to a stifled whisper. Entrances and Exits by Cooper began with a bold baroque fanfare with a playful, even honky-tonk interlude. Kelley might have exaggerated the comic moments with more boldness.

Kelley selected three works by John McDonald from Piano Album 2009, op. 446 for this “Restorative,” “Tripped up and Overthrown,” and “Therapy,” soothing, its simple oscillating patterns offering Gamelan-like effects. Kelley’s playing of Rahbee’s Ballade, op 110 shaped the phrases with a rich sense of coloring and momentum. For the last section of Fox’s exhilarating Toccata on Bach, Kelley poured on the speed flawlessly, and cheers were mixed with the applause.

Following a well-deserved ovation, Kelley offered the Rahbee Bagatelle, op. 181.

Steinert’s room (not to be confused with the once-illustrious Hall in the basement, which survives but is not in use) was a bit dry acoustically, and with poor sight lines, since it is long and flat. A few windows open to let in air brought in some outside noise.   [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Belcea Passes Supreme Test and More of Quartet Playing

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A leading younger ensemble on the international chamber music scene, the Belcea Quartet, appeared at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on April 25. The Belcea chose a sprightly alla breve tempo for the opening movement of the Beethoven Opus 18, no. 6, in B flat that gave full value to its opera buffa mood and Beethoven’s often perverse dynamic accents. One regretted their decision not to take either of the repeats. (And what did the program annotator mean in citing the “coda” of this movement, when in fact there is none?) The supreme test of ensemble playing came with the mysterious slow introduction to the Finale. Maintaining a vibrato-less pianissimo throughout, except for occasional loud outbursts, the quartet launched into the cheerful German dance that follows, shadowed only by a brief return of the “Malinconia” music before the brilliant prestissimo conclusion.

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) turned in the 1920s after the reestablishment of the Polish state to a more overtly nationalist movement, looking, like Bartók, to indigenous music as a means of invigorating national styles while avoiding provincialism. The three movements of Szymanowski’s Second Quartet, Op. 56 from 1927, reflect this shift. The Belcea Quartet has a particular affinity for Szymanowski’s music and plans to include more in upcoming programs.

Although the quartet’s leader, first violinist Corina Belcea-Fisher, generally tended to dominate the ensemble with her brilliant and sometimes edgy tone, her playing was beautifully matched to that of her partner in  these eloquent duets of Bartók’s Quartet no. 1, op. 7, which well suited the Belcea’s energetic and highly integrated playing style.          [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Haydn-Schoenberg Connection Realized, Third Time Around

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I attended all three of Russell Sherman’s three-concert series at Emmanuel Church, the last on Sunday afternoon, April 25. Having already disagreed with some of his interpretive choices, I hoped that I would “get it” this time, because stylistic eccentricities notwithstanding, he is undoubtedly an artist for whom it is worth laying aside one’s own aesthetic boundaries. But something transformative happened during the Schoenberg Suite für Klavier, Op. 25. Sherman was bringing out the motives much in the same way he does with Haydn, and I heard the fluidity I associate with Haydn transferred so beautifully to Schoenberg’s music.

There were still moments where his approach to phrasing felt too explanatory and halting; however, I enjoyed how he took Haydn’s phrases out of Classical rhetoric in the Sonata in E minor and gave them more than a touch of modernity.

In the C Major sonata, Sherman honored all jocular motivic gestures Haydn tucked in without breaking the momentum and highlighted the grace and humor that Haydn does so very well.

Sherman again took a more conservative approach (for him) with Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major, much as he did with the C Major. He made much of the harmonic transition, exposing Schoenberg in Haydn’s music, much in the same way he had pulled Haydn into Schoenberg’s Suite, though there was too much insistence on the repeated note motive in the final movement. The instrument at Emmanuel has a very bright sound at times and can occasionally spar with the acoustic.

Sherman’s playing suggests that modernity and tradition are only fleeting and relative concepts when we allow the music to breathe and live anew in performance.         [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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