First Church Series Features Appealing Harpsichord Program from Sheikov

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Harpsichordist Nickolai Sheikov gave the first of a new series of concerts Sunday afternoon, October 18, at First Church, Boston.

Sheikov was playing on a splendid Hubbard French double harpsichord supplied for this series of Sunday afternoon concerts by Hendrik Broekman from Hubbard Harpsichords.

Sheikov presented a very appealing program: Purcell’s Suite No. 6 in D Major, (Z667) to which Sheikov attached a short Ground (Z222); Handel’s Suite No. 2 in F Major; then the four duets from the Art of Fugue, strange and wondrous pieces from the late J. S. Bach.  The second half of the program focused on composers Sheikov favors: Bach and Scarlatti, of course, but also Frescobaldi and Louis Couperin.

Particularly noteworthy was the performer’s improvisational way with Frescobaldi. It’s unusual to hear Louis Couperin these days, well represented by the Suite in d minor.

Sheikov is an excellent harpsichordist, but it would be good if occasionally smiled. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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New Direction of Boston Chamber Music Society Well Received with Schubert, Harbison, Brahms

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The first concert of the 27th season of the Boston Chamber Music Society at Sanders Theatre was attended by a large, warm, and attentive audience who braved the unseasonable snowstorm to enjoy the winds of change at Sanders on Sunday, October 18. Marcus Thompson, the long-time and much-loved member of the Society, is now at its helm.

From the opening of the Schubert String Trio in B-flat Major, the strings played with an elegance and unanimity of conception that spoke of careful, thoughtful preparation. Ida Levin’s silky sound opened the piece, and the warm voices of violist Marcus Thompson and cellist Andrew Mark joined with crystalline intonation. Even the amount of vibrato was perfectly matched.

The Boston premiere of John Harbison’s Piano Trio #2 (2003) followed the Schubert, and presented music of both striking contrast and similarity. Levin and Mark were joined by guest pianist David Deveau, Artistic Director of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, an equally sensitive musical partner. Harbison’s musical language is totally different – spare, linear, without the conventional forms Schubert knew. But the music is immediately recognizable as emotional human interactions.

Finally, the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major, opus 26, provided a rich hot fudge sundae to follow the spare sushi. The applause and cheers were well-earned, and players and audience were fortified to return to the world of snow and wind, refreshed. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Boston Chamber Players In Fine Fettle

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One of the glories of Boston’s musical life is not only the depth, but variety, of offerings. Such was the case this last weekend, when the BSO completed a round of programs on Saturday evening with Ludovic Morlot, former apprentice conductor of the BSO, brilliantly offering a program of demanding music by Martinu, Stravinsky, Thomas and Tchaikovsky. Sunday afternoon, a number of the orchestra’s players were on hand to offer music of Ervin Schulhoff, Elliott Carter, and Brahms.

Schulhoff, a Czech who died in a concentration camp, should be heard more often if his Concertino for flute, viola and double bass is any indication of his music. The introspective opening, with several unison passages and an improvisatory flute melody accompanied by viola and bass immediately made the listener grateful for this combination. Edwin Barker’s superb bass playing proves that we should never take this instrument for granted, and Elizabeth Rowe and Steven Ansell were his equals; the ensemble was superb at every turn.

Elliott Carter is a composer this listener has often admired more than enjoyed, but his Eight Etudes and a Fantasy won me over almost immediately. Movements three and seven were fascinating: in the third, a single triad, and in the seventh one unison note, with instruments shifting timbral combinations, in each case creating a sense of calm in the gestural sea of melody and rhythm of the other movements.

Marc-Andre Hamelin, the quietly-brilliant Canadian pianist now living in Boston, joined the group for the final piece on the program, Brahms’ Piano Quintet # 3 in C minor. The brooding first movement and unusual second movement scherzo were fine enough and played beautifully, but Jules Eskin’s cello solo in the third slow movement raised the bar even further, and reaffirmed the status of this as one of Brahms most beautiful melodic output. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Borromeo Brings Bartók String Quartets to Life at Gardner

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In their second consecutive appearance on October 18 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Borromeo String Quartet concluded their performance of the complete Bartók string quartets. The Borromeo delivered a performance of the highest caliber, playing with energy, sensitivity, and a level of elegance that can only be achieved by musicians with such an impeccable proficiency for 20th-century music.

String Quartet No. 2 was filled with charismatic references to the music of Debussy, mixed together with the seeds of Bartók’s distinct harmonic language that becomes so cohesive in his later works.

After a splendid performance of the piece, first violinist Nicholas Kitchen shared an interesting story of visiting Budapest and investigating some of Bartók’s original manuscripts, exploring different interpretations of moments in String Quartet No. 4.

The first movement relies entirely on a dialogue between two musical ideas that juxtapose each other throughout the movement, often interchanging at an extremely rapid pace. The Borromeo’s performance provided the intensity necessary in such an unrestrained manner that the musical dialogue in the composition flowed freely from the ensemble.

The inclination of most concert programs (as well as multi-movement works) is to end big, loud, and fast. The complete opposite is never so effective as it is String Quartet No. 6. This is one of the most beautiful, gut-wrenching pieces the 20th century has to offer. The ensemble realized it immaculately, with the kind of weight and affect that leaves you in a trance at the end of the piece, unable to applaud, for only a moment. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Peter Serkin playing Igor, premiere of Thomas Helios Choros II, highlights at BSO

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed an exceptionally energetic program on Thursday night, October 15, under the baton of former BSO assistant conductor Ludovic Morlot. After a rough start, the BSO performed a magnificent program with nearly unremitting energetic force.

The evening featured star pianist Peter Serkin in a tireless and animated performance of Stravinsky’s Capriccio for piano and orchestra, as well as Helios Choros II, a new work by Augusta Read Thomas co-commissioned by the BSO and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The concert closed with Tchaikovsky’s Symphonic Fantasy Francesca da Rimini, which demonstrated Morlot’s ability to add momentum and life to a fairly square piece of music.

The opening performance of Martinu’s The Frescoes of Piero Della Francesca began with a sense of lifelessness and lack of expressive coordination and recovered only moderately by the end of the piece. These blunders are not at all common among the BSO players.

Thomas’s Helios Choros II (Sun God Dancers) lived well up to its expectations and was delivered immaculately by the orchestra and Morlot, who is no stranger to conducting contemporary music. The piece was much like walking into a room with a handful of very distinct, idiosyncratic characters having a conversation. Some are interested in what the others are saying and respond with relevant and affected musical retorts, while others are only interested and hearing themselves speak and interject arrogantly and willfully throughout the piece. Helios Choros II is the second and longest component of a three-part symphonic triptych. It would be quite a treat if the Boston Symphony Orchestra would provide the hinges for this splendid work. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Longy Faculty Delivers Delightful, Varied Menu of Songs

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Pianist Brian Moll presided over an absolutely delightful evening of song by faculty members at Longy School of Music on Saturday, October 17. His collaborators, soprano Mara Bonde and baritone Jesse Blumberg, were stunning, with perfect intonation, diction, accent, and fantastic stage presence.

Three lively Schumann duets were followed by a duet by Brahms. Blumberg’s singing of four songs of love, longing, and death by Hugo Wolf from poetry of Morike was restrained, gorgeous, and moving, one of the high points of the concert. Bonde followed with six Spanish songs by de Falla – a welcome change into almost flamenco style.

The second half started with Blumberg singing the “Histoires Naturelles” of Ravel, a series of satiric prose descriptions of the curious actions of animals. Bonde then sang five short pieces by Reynaldo Hahn, unfamiliar to me, but beautiful. The last suite of duets included two by Ives, then one by Stephen Foster. The next was a lovely and moving duet by Allen Bonde, Mara’s father, a professor of composition at Mt. Holyoke College.

The encore was a lively and funny rendition of “I can do anything better than you” from Annie Get Your Gun. Couldn’t have been better! [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Handel Opera Saved by Gorgeous Arias

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In its season opener in Jordan Hall on October 16, Boston Baroque presented the Boston premiere of an early London opera, Amadigi di Gaula, by Handel, with an excellent cast of singers.

Like many operas, the story and the libretto is silly and stock pieces abound, but the music is on a very high level. Just when you thought that this opera would never end after more than two hours, Handel would throw another gorgeous aria at you, and all would be forgiven.

Highlights were a superb “Ah! Spietato,” Melissa’s regret aria, one of several from this great singer.

Performing in modern dress, this cast is somewhat sonically compromised by the uniform treble voices usually singing alone, not to speak of the fact that in the baroque period there is no character development in arias. We had to wait until the very end when the comprimarios (Ulysses Thomas and Edward Whalen) removed their masks and joined in the jubilation.

When Oriana completed her aria at the end of Act II, I said to myself that the opera should have ended here. But then we would have missed Melissa’s suicide, Dardano’s Underworld aria (sung from the balcony, a nice touch) and the quintet at the end. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Piano Master Misha Dichter Astounds at Boston Conservatory

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The matchless earthborn voice of Misha Dichter astounded an audience at Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall, Tuesday, October 13, a welcome if not bold opening of the 2009 Piano Masters Series.

Dichter caused Brahms’ Two Ballades from op. 10 to act like boulders making their way downstream in fast-moving water. Toward the end of the second ballade a very noticeable edginess surfaced when Dichter had the quickly moving short staccato motives chisel away at slower moving sonorities, eventually bringing the latter to rest.

Seizing one moment after the next in Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles op. 126, he pressed on, even in the andante-marked pieces, stirring in them a boldly beautiful life through thickly rounded harmonies nesting beneath melodies shaped with piercing accents.

Dichter’s down-to-earth voice pronounced Schubert’s Sonata in a minor op. 143 with simplicity and forthrightness, no engineered gestures or feigned emotions in view, but rather natural physical movements of the hands awash with muscular piano reverberation.

The it-all-happened-so-fast-I-think-I-missed-it velocities in the last movement marked allegro vivace seemed to pick up yet more speed in the Liszt Funerailles, Valse-Impromptu in A- flat and Hungarian Rhapsody, climaxing in an avalanche of Lisztian bravura and a mountain of Steinway sound.

La lugubre gondola No. 2, also of Liszt, 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs of Bartók, and a Scriabin encore completed Dichter’s awe-evoking recital in Boston, his first after a 15-year absence. Who would have ever dreamed that this master of the piano had had a serious bout with Dupuytren’s Disease, only to rebound and deliver a rock-solid, brilliantly bold and down-to-earth performance of some of the most difficult piano pieces in existence? [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Petrenko BSO Debut Energizes Orchestra, Audience

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Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko cannily chose brilliant music of his countrymen for his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut concerts October 8, 9, and 10, and the results achieved what every new BSO guest conductor would hope for:  respect from his players and robust enthusiasm from his audience.  Only a couple of tiny glitches kept this program from achieving the very topmost tier.

Petrenko was in full control from the first few measures of Stravinsky’s early (op. 3, 1908) Scherzo Fantastique. The huge orchestra sported three harps, and the overall effect was alternately filamentous, transparent, colorful and virtuosic.  Obviously a fiendish piece to play, the Orchestra betrayed no strain whatsoever, and a brilliant reading was achieved.

For Sergei Rachmaninoff’s brooding and darkly hued Isle of the Dead, Petrenko consistently found the appropriate balance of tempo and instrumental color, which tellingly enhanced the poetic and story-telling character of his interpretation. Of the many highlights, the black-velvet, perfectly tuned and timed brass chorale entrances in the later minutes of the work remain poignantly clear in my memory.

The concert’s second half offered Dimitri Shostakovich’s massive and at times emotionally enigmatic 1953 Symphony No. 10 in E-Minor, op. 93. The present fine estate of the BSO’s deep strings and all its woodwinds was very much in evidence.  William Hudgin’s cheerfully burbling clarinet in the symphony’s final movement, and his duet with Thomas Martin in the work’s opening movement were astonishing in their accuracy and elegantly tapered phrasings.  Timpanist Timothy Genis reminded us throughout, and especially at the music’s powerful end, how fortunate we are to have him.  A tiny bit of brass insecurity (rarely-heard early entrances in both horn and tuba) only lightly distracted for a couple of seconds from the overall powerful exposition of this 20th century touchstone. [Click title for ful review.] [continued]

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Handel and Haydn Society Opens with Spinosi and Scholl

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On October 9th, The Handel and Haydn Society inaugurated its 195th season with the Boston debuts of two outstanding artists in the area of period performance: violinist and conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi,  who took the podium, and countertenor Andreas Scholl, who joined for most of the evening.  It was a program that also demonstrated the stylistic differences between two towering composers of the Baroque period: Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel.

In the two arias by Handel that were featured on the program, Scholl was able to recreate that aesthetic of dazzling vocal tehnnique with a clear, flexible tone, convincing musicality, and a clever sense of ornamentation, especially noticeable in the da capo of “Se parla nel mio cor” from the opera Giustino.  Spinosi and the H&H Society Orchestra supported Scholl’s interpretations with energetic yet properly Neapolitan grace.

Vivaldi, on the other hand, was no great tunesmith.  His music lives through motivic gestures energized by compelling rhythmic momentum and a highly coloristic sense of instrumentation.  From the first downbeat of the evening, which started off the composer’s three-part overture to La fida ninfa, it was clear that Spinosi and the orchestra were going to be making the most of those characteristics, especially the colors. Scholl, too, had to contend with the fact that Vivaldi’s music is not about beautiful tunes; and in this case, the glassy sonority of his voice sometimes got in the way.  Interpretively, he was remarkable. The problem was that the more he tried to vary his vocal color for dramatic effect, the less his voice actually projected, resulting in him often being buried in the textures.

Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, a drawn out, repetitive lament, was treated by both singer and conductor with such rich, expressive somberness, that it resulted in one of those rare and wonderful occasions where the performance raised the level of the music beyond its own intrinsic quality. [Click title for full reivew.]

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Taut Playing Alternated With Expressiveness For Boston Philharmonic

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On its opening concert of the new season, the Boston Philharmonic programmed “the king of concertos” (Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 ) along with what “many feel is the best symphony” (Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor) of one of the best-known symphonists.  These and other observations from the Philharmonic’s long-time conductor, Benjamin Zander, captured the attention of a near full house at Sanders Theatre.

“If you had heard the Brahms before,” then this performance by the Boston Philharmonic, Zander advised, would be a “revelation”: up-and-coming violinist Feng Ning and conductor Benjamin Zander agreed to become “collaborators” or “equal partners”; their approach would also make extensive use of  “rubato.” Polish and precision, though, afforded little room, if any, for spontaneity. With rubato as the primary vehicle for expression, a flow would be expected: naturalness, fluidity, freedom, and the like. Curiously, taut playing surfaced throughout and, at times, to such a degree that it seemed on the brink of bursting out of its confined space.

Zander’s focus became real in Dvorák’s 7th symphony. Where the formalism of Brahms constrained Zander, the endless flux and unbridled expression of Dvorák unleashed him. There was space everywhere for the music to breathe. Hairpin turns of emotion occurred naturally, freely, yet with purpose: restless strings yearning and striving; powerful, triumphant brasses shrouded in doubt; quieter, triumphant woodwinds touched with humility. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Local Singers Launch Worthwhile Relief Fund

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“A Singer’s Voice,” presented last Saturday evening at Back Bay’s Church of the Covenant, launched “The Boston Singers’ Relief Fund,” a worthy venture by any measure, and the program made it clear that we have much to celebrate in our professional singers. Not only had they been well rehearsed, but they sounded like an experienced and cohesive ensemble, not always the easiest thing to achieve with a group of professional singers. Murray Kidd was organizer and conductor of this concert, which featured a broad range of choral music as well as one operatic excerpt from Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, which featured Barbara Kilchuff, soprano. Stanford’s serene “Beati Quorum Via” provided sweet contrast to the sturdiness of the opening Mendelssohn work, and Hubert Parry’s grand and glorious “I Was Glad,” rang out in elegant grandeur through the lofty rafters of the church. Frederick MacArthur managed the organ accompaniment deftly, and this performance even included the stirring “Vivat Regina” section that is often omitted. “Agnus Dei,” from the interesting Mass by Puccini was charming, made even more so by tenor Michael Calmes’ lovely singing. There were many short, splendid solos in Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, and one had the happy feeling here, as in the rest of the program, that the singers were collaborating, not competing: a wonderful thing. I have never been entirely convinced by this piece, but this performance made the best case to date. “For All We Know,” by Fred Coots in an arrangement by Brent Pierce was the very quiet concluding anthem. It was refreshing, especially in the context of this evening’ program, to end quietly and thoughtfully. [Click title for full review]

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First Monday is 25!

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lesser

An avuncular Laurance Lesser presided with obvious pride over the 25th anniversary performance of the First Monday at Jordan Hall Series that he had originated in 1985. The concert, on October 5, was performed, as usual, by Lesser’s reliable amalgam of faculty, students, alumni and friends.

The evening began with a dramatic darkening of the house as antiphonal brass choirs deployed on opposite sides of the balcony, illuminated only by their music stand lights, in a stately rendition of two Gabrielli Canzonas. In the Bach “Solo” Wedding Cantata, Weichet nur, betrübte Shatten BWV 202, the still lustrous-voiced soprano, Lisa Saffer, offered an alternately dramatic and consoling rendition—though without the production of many German consonants.

The evening closed with a well plotted Quintet in g minor of Mozart which could have benefited from a bit more of the risk taking, which an established ensemble would have dared.

This journal joins the very satisfied Jordan Hall audience in saluting emeritus NEC President, Laurance Lesser on the silver anniversary of his estimable series. [Click title for full review.]

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Von Stade, Te Kanawa Farewell Concert Left A Longing

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Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade performed her Boston “Farewell Concert” with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and pianist Brian Zeger at Symphony Hall on Sunday afternoon, October 4, the inaugural offering of the 2009-2010 season of the Celebrity Series of Boston.

The two marvelous singers, who also have been close friends for 40 years, gave us a concert that was long on cutesy and short on heart-rending, which they both can do so well, even granting them the vagaries of  seniority. Te Kanawa’s voice was often inaudible in Row O, though she could still send out a wonderful long, high note. These were the ones that gave von Stade problems, but her gloriously human, interpretive singing held court.

The hit of the first half of the concert was the duet, “Ah, guarda, sorella,” between the two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, from Cosi fan tutte; von Stade seemed to bring out the best in Te Kanawa.

The Aaron Copland setting of the Emily Dickinson poem,  “Why do they shut me out of Heaven?”,  is often sung with humor, but it seemed overdone by Te Kanawa, albeit the audience did giggle appreciatively.
Five songs from Chants d’Auvergne, by Joseph Canteloube, seemed a few too many. But the Poulenc songs, to poetry of Apollinaire and Anouilh, were wonderful.

Throughout the concert, the ladies had a fine accompanist in Brian Zeger.

The last of the “additional songs” was La “Vie en Rose,” sung achingly beautifully. A Grand Finale for von Stade. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Chameleon Presents Colorful, Inspired Juxtapositions in Season Opener

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The Chameleon Arts Ensemble continued their tradition of creative, thought-provoking, entertaining programming with “Music and All Silence Held,” the season opener at the Goethe Institut in Boston’s Back Bay on Saturday evening, October 3.

Kristopher Tong, the Borromeo String Quartet violinist, pinch-hit for injured Joanna Kurkowicz concert in Mozart’s lighthearted Duo No. 1 in G Major, K. 423 for violin and viola. His  performance was playful, lyrical, energetic, and expressive. Violist Scott Woolweaver’s approach was somewhat straightforward and workmanlike, an excellent foil to Tong’s more exuberant interpretation, though I would have preferred a few more sweetly soft moments in the second movement.

Cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer’s playing in Claude Debussy’s Sonata in d minor for cello and piano was more than up to the technically challenging spiccato, pizzicato, and flautando passages. Pianist Gloria Chien’s powerful, rock-solid playing belied her diminutive stature.

The overall effect of Toru Takemitsu’s And Then I Knew ’Twas Wind was moody, brooding, haunting, pensive, somewhat disjointed. Deborah Boldin’s ethereal and pellucid flute playing juxtaposed effectively with the scratchy sounds required of the viola. Harpist Anna Reinerman created a flowing cascade of shimmery, shapely notes, including some bent at all manner of odd auditory angles.

The pièce de résistance was Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, Clarinetist Gary Gorczyca spun sinuous, limpid melody lines that expressed subtle emotions, Chien was a pianistic dynamo, and cellist Popper-Keizer handled the challenge of numerous extended tones in the fifth movement with ease, adding subtle color to avoid the tedium of repetition. Violinist Gabriela Diaz, a second pinch-hitter for Joanna Kurkowicz, absolutely hit one out of the park! Her playing featured sterling technique and a kaleidoscopic range of tonal color. All in all, the most convincing, nuanced, colorful, compelling, coherent rendition of this piece I’ve yet heard. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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“Chaconne, Anyone?” Steinhardt Says Why

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Arnold Steinhardt, first violinist of the famed Guarneri String Quartet, came to the Gardner Museum, Sunday, October 4, to answer his own question before a dedicated and expectant collection of listeners: Why is the “Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor of J. S. Bach “the masterpiece that every aspiring violinist must study and eventually perform?”

Billed as an afternoon of conversation and performance, conversation it was not, but storytelling at its best — totally engaging, entirely enjoyable and fabulously informative. Steinhardt brought in Pablo Casals, Jascha Heifitz, Mischa Ellman, and a gypsy violinist extraordinaire.

When Steinhardt heard violinist Mischa Elman play the Chaconne, the young boy’s life changed. It was Elman’s “gorgeous sound,” his way of bringing out “patterns” in the piece, and his extraordinary way of making the instrument sound like the human voice in expressing “all kinds of feelings and emotions.”
Steinhardt did not play, due to a minor elbow inflammation. Jennifer Koh’s performance of the Partita was a total disappointment. No human voice, no “gypsy-like” freedom, no dancing, no blueprint: none were evident in this 30-minute-plus work.

At brief question-and-answer session, someone asked how long it takes before one feels comfortable enough to play a piece like the Chaconne in public. “Comfortable?” replied Steinhardt, “That’s a new concept to me. These are scary pieces!” [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Exsultemus Channels Hamburg

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The Exsultemus Ensemble opened its 2009-2010 Concert Season at the First Lutheran Church in Boston with an attractive program devoted to 17th- and 18th-century sacred music from the city of Hamburg. The program focused on the three composers who defined Hamburg’s musical life in their respective periods: Matthias Weckmann and Christoph Bernhard, the two star pupils of Heinrich Schütz, from the mid-17th century, and Georg Philipp Telemann, the dominant figure in the 18th century. The juxtaposition of two distinct style periods proved to be most illuminating.

At the center of the program stood Weckmann’s monumental chorale elaboration on the Lutheran hymn “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her,” one of the most extended and extraordinary organ works of the 17th century. The scale of its sophisticated design became wonderfully apparent through the varied and powerful sound of the Richards & Fowkes organ, the very best instrument in the city of Boston for the North-German Baroque. Bálint Karosi, the organist, turned out to be a most impressive musical interpreter for this challenging piece.

The second group of vocal works introduced three rarely heard Telemann works, demonstrating his magisterial command of sacred music, his differentiated musical expressions, and his stylistically forward-looking approach.

The four singers formed a most homogeneous, transparent, and balanced vocal ensemble for the concluding motet, “Laudate Jehovam” for four voices and instruments. The conductorless ensemble might have benefited here and there, notably at final cadences, from an occasional waving hand or shaping gesture. On the whole, however, the performers excelled in highlighting two striking culmination points in Hamburg’s musical culture. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Florestan, BMOP Offer Sublime Tribute to Vocal Music

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Florestan and BMOP together offered a sublime tribute to the voice at the recent three-day festival, September 25 to 27, At Tuft University’s Distler Performance Hall. Florestan presented the complete songs of Samuel Barber, some 75 in number. The Sunday afternoon concert featured a chamber-music-sized BMOP with concerted songs of Samuel Barber and Virgil Thomson.

Baritone Aaron Engebreth lent his strong baritone in two songs from the 1930s. Pianist Alison d’Amato was his able collaborator. Then tenor Joe Dan collaborated with Anne Kissel. Soprano Sarah Pelletier, with Shiela Kibbe at the piano, sang songs from the ’20s, including the harrowing, but unpublished, “Man.” Baritone Thomas Meglioranza offered a wondrous “The Feast of Love,” a fourth-century work translated in 1964 by Virgil Thomson.

After intermission we were in for a treat, Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 (James Agee text) and Thomson’s Five Songs of William Blake (1952). The rarely performed Thomson songs, sung beautifully by Meglioranza, were equally moving.

It is a pity that more people didn’t turn out. Perhaps they would have if they had known that Florestan, in honor of Tennessee, planned a bourbon reception afterwards to celebrate the weekend. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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First-Rate Perfomances by Boston Musica Viva

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There were no riots at the Musica Viva concert “All-American Grooves” on September 25 at the Tsai Performance Center, but there was plenty of approval — and for good reason. The performances were first-rate. Music Director Richard Pittman led his superb ensemble with skill and understanding, and his players responded in kind.

Michael Gandolfi’s Grooved Surfaces utilizes a typical Adowa drum-ensemble rhythm in which the pizzicato ‘cello and left-hand piano mimic the role of the shakes (the drum-ensemble instrument that provides a steady rhythmical underpinning). The first movement was mesmerizing in its use of shape-shifting repetition; the second fully exploited the minimalist textures, creating a kaleidoscope of colors. The energetic Flipsides that concluded the work was played brilliantly by the ensemble, pianist Geoffrey Burleson dispatching the complicated piano part with aplomb.

The Seven Ages by John Harbison, which received its first Boston performance, is based on six poems by Louise Glück that are magnificent, terrifying, depressing and bittersweet. Mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal sang all with excellent diction and a complete understanding of the words, creating a performance vivid and deeply felt.

The second half opened with a world premier, Richard Cornell’s Images (2009). The opening duet between piano and drums was particularly effective. Movement II came off just like that: an unattractive research exercise, without engaging the listener.

Elliott Carter’s Triple Duo (1982/83) concluded the program. What more can be said about this iconic composer who has given us numerous masterpieces for almost a century. Only time will tell which of the works on this program will be considered an old chestnut in 50 years. Viva Musica Viva for giving us the opportunity to hear them first. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Compelling Performance of Barber Songs by Florestan Project

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The second program in this three-concert series by The Florestan Project of the songs of Samuel Barber, which took place on September 26 in Tufts University’s Distler Performance Hall, demonstrated just how effective and enlightening a well-organized and skillfully performed exploration of a single composer’s output can be. The stylistic progression was fascinating to hear, from songs written when he was 10 to 13, with keen and serious mimicry of the late-Romantic textural and tonal thickness in vogue at the time, to his late 50s, when Barber had mastered a musical language that allowed the deeply personal and poignant sentiments to emerge with stunning sonic imagery.

Pianists John McDonald and Alison d’Amato each supported the vocalists with a fine ear and a full-bodied, cushiony touch that never overpowered the voices; though there were many times when they seemed to hold back too much. Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty covered the expressive gamut from humorous to grave with a voice that demonstrated a remarkable variety of colors and moods. Similarly, Aaron Engebreth’s powerful baritone voice never got in the way of his intensely engaging ability to tell a story.

The astute program order and the high-quality performances ensured that the “style fatigue” that can often result from a concert of music by a single composer never set in. Instead, the evening was compelling and very satisfying. [Click title for full review.]

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Collaborative Playing Rewards Fusion of Western, Chinese Traditions

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Magic Strings: a dialogue between pipa and violin,” the concert on September 27 in Jordan Hall, brought together Boston-born violinist Lynn Chang and pipa virtuoso Wu Man.

The three movements of Chen Yi’s Ancient Dances — “Cheering,” “Longing,” and “Wondering” — ranged from the dreamy to the exuberant, the subtle percussion an ideal foil for  Wu Man’s expressive playing.

For Chen Yi’s “Sprout” for string orchestra, ancient Chinese melodies are woven together using western contrapuntal and harmonic idioms. The Far Cry Chamber Orchestra, standing (except for the cellists) and without conductor, delivered this piece with a wonderful sense of collaborative energy.

Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra combines traditional romantic concerto form in three movements, including a wonderful slow cadenza in the second movement, with a percussion ensemble that includes such “junk” instruments as pipes, flower pots, and coffee cans, along with a bass viol turned on its back. Lynn Chang’s beautiful tone and phrasing soared through it all with expressive conviction. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Pilot Shows Her Skill in Williams Commission, BSO Season Starts with Standing Ovations

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its 2009-2010 season with a gala concert at Symphony Hall on Wednesday, September 23.  It began with an exuberant rendition of Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture. The opening night audience was unusually vocal in showing its appreciation which extended into standing ovations for all of the evening’s pieces.

Next came Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor with Evgeny Kissin in a commanding performance, clean and controlled. The melody, played with ease and clarity, lacked the lyricism one is accustomed to hearing. The final piece of the concert was La Mer by Claude Debussy. Under James Levine, the ensemble was tight, the interpretation exciting.

The centerpiece of the concert was On Willows and Birches, a concerto for harp by John Williams that was commissioned by the BSO to honor retiring harpist Ann Hobson Pilot. “On Willows,” opens with an adagio designated to be played “dreamily.” The subtle rubato is served by a pulse which waivers frequently and sometimes imperceptibly between duple and triple meter. It is delicately orchestrated — almost like chamber music. The percussion instruments, which include crotales and glass bowl, are gently used for color and support. The second movement, “On Birches,” sparkles with rhythmic energy, this time dancing between duple and triple time. Ms. Pilot, whose playing has been consistently strong, confident, with impeccable rhythmic sense and accuracy, performed with sensitivity and expression that is evident of a musician enriched by experience and maturity. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Jam-packed House for Idiosyncratic Pianism from Sherman

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Not a seat at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall could be found for Boston’s own Russell Sherman performing preludes of Debussy and Chopin on September 24. In his hands, Debussy’s own unconventional music — compositions famous for displays of Impressionism and Modernism, pianism and naturalism — was refreshingly, unexpectedly articulated. Sherman obviously continued on his own personal, if not idiosyncratic journey, envisioning the Frenchman’s art as harmonics — not just harmony.

In Broulliards (Fog), chords on the white keys counter arpeggios on the black keys. Sherman melded the two as a single type of vibration as if out of nature. For Feuilles mortes (Dead leaves), he touched up harmonies by not articulating each note of the chord equally thereby creating colors — light — of  all kinds to issue forth in the most astonishingly delicate if not dizzying tonal shades.

With Les Fées sont d’exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers) came his extraordinary sense of pedaling intended to create an exquisitely tinged swirling effect followed by trills perfectly shimmering in a subdued but intense atmosphere.

Chopin’s Préludes Op. 28 were another matter, overshadowed with much the same techniques Sherman had used so successfully in the Debussy. Too much and too often in the forefront, they became the focus. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Gandolfi Commission, Fine Bartok, Herald Concord Chamber Music Society 10th Anniversary

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The Concord Chamber Music Society celebrated their 10th anniversary with a performance at the Concord Academy auditorium on Sunday afternoon, September 20. In  the first piece, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 (op. 96), with Wendy Putnam, violin, and Vytas J. Baksys, piano, the performance was more placid than the dynamic and daring score seemed to suggest.

Lukas Foss’s Central Park Reel was another violin/piano duo. While a lazier composer would’ve made a minimalist reel and smiled with smug post-modern satisfaction, Foss dove into the nuances of his material and had fun.

Line Drawings, a commission from Michael Gandolfi that marked the society’s anniversary, was modeled after Picasso’s single-gesture works. The music was a set of five sketches for violin, clarinet (Thomas Martin), and piano, each written in under three days with emphasis on a single gesture. The writing in each was strong and clear, but the whole set had a kind of “box of chocolates” effect. You’re happy when you get, for example, the chocolate-covered apricot. In all, the set was pleasant and refreshing.

Bartók’s Contrasts shows Bartók at his finest, drawing respectfully from folk music yet finding something altogether new. The players really rose to the challenge, finding all the dance and the snap in the piece. [click title for full review] [continued]

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Run to See “Say It Ain’t So, Joe!”

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Run, don’t walk, to the Boston Conservatory’s Zack Black Box Theater (8 The Fenway) to see the remaining performances — Sept. 23, 25 and 26, at 8 p.m. — of “Say it Ain’t So, Joe!,” a new opera by Curtis Hughes based on the vice-presidential debate in 2008 between Sarah Palin (Aliana de la Guardia) and Joe Biden (baritone Brian Church).

You can hear every word of the vocalization in this opera, a variant of sprechstimme reinforced by pitches from the crack instrumentalists (Rane Moore, clarinets; Kent O’Doherty, saxophones; Javier Caballero, cello; and Mike Williams, percussion).

Guerilla Opera, founded in 2007, focuses on short works in small spaces that are nevertheless tightly organized by the singers and the orchestra and the direction,  in this case by Nathan Troup. As such, they occupy a unique niche in Boston’s cultural scene. [click title for full review] [continued]

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