Posts Tagged ‘sedgwick clark’

“He’s So Musical”

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

by Sedgwick Clark

PK turned to me last Friday (3/22) at Carnegie Hall when the applause had died down for intermission and asked, “Where did he come from? He’s so musical. Where did he train?” Moments later, she continued animatedly to friends who had joined us, “He seems relaxed with the piano – it’s not an adversarial relationship like the Serkin school, where the instrument is an enemy to be conquered. He doesn’t play with anxiety, which is rare these days.” She also liked his insightful program notes.

What a relief! Her usual question when I’ve cajoled her into going to a concert that initially elicited a frown is muttered after the first piece or movement: “Why am I here?” Fact is, she’d almost always rather spend the evening at home with our three bichons, but this time she was happy she came.

The recitalist was Jeremy Denk, who opened the program audaciously with Bartók’s Piano Sonata (1926). I hadn’t heard the Sonata in many years and was reminded of its strong kinship to the First Piano Concerto (my favorite of the three), which Bartók composed later that year. It’s the first of his oeuvre to use the piano as a percussion instrument. “Though dissonant and raucous, it’s very good-humored,” Denk states in his notes, and his rendering of the work’s dance and folk elements, his colorful tonal palette, and refusal to bang served the music brilliantly.

Great Liszt performances require beauty of tone, first and foremost. In “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” Prelude after J.S. Bach, S. 179; Sonetto 123 del Petrarca from Années de pèlerinage, Deuxième année; Dante Sonata; and Isoldes Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde — a group Denk describes as “ranging from worldly pain to bliss to damnation to death” — he succeeded admirably, with all the requisite dynamic range. The first work, astonishingly, seems to be the first Carnegie Hall performance in recorded history. The Petrarca Sonetto purred with velvet. The turbulent Dante, which so often sprawls, was the most convincing, i.e., coherent, performance I’ve heard. The Tristan transcription, which easily curdles, was gorgeously sustained.

Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 869, appeared underplayed, perhaps deliberately, for it was followed by a Beethoven Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, replete with chance taking. Carnegie’s wet acoustic has always challenged piano recitals (at least in the parquet seats), especially after the hall’s 1986 renovation, and Denk’s fingers seemed to race ahead at times in the Allegro. The second-movement Adagio lacked breadth to my taste, despite excellent trills and an emotionally satisfying coda, but PK “really liked” the performance in its entirety.

Denk fans may look forward to Saturday evening, May 4, when he joins Renée Fleming and several other fine artists at Carnegie in an attractive lineup of vocal and chamber fin de siècle works.

By the way, Denk earned a master’s degree as a pupil of György Sebök at Indiana University and a doctorate in piano performance at Juilliard, where he studied with Herbert Stessin.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

3/28 Avery Fisher Hall. Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel. Vivier: Zipangu. Debussy: La Mer. Stravinsky: The Firebird (complete ballet).

4/1 at 7:30. Symphony Space. Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival. Pulse Chamber Ensemble; Chris Reza Trio. Victoria Bond: Cyclops. Charles Mason: Pulsearrythmic. Thomas Sleeper: Semi-Suite. Jesse Jones: Unisono. Chris Reza: Cacophony.

4/3 Carnegie Hall. Boston Symphony/Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Hindemith: Concert Music for Strings and Brass. Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra.

4/4 Carnegie Hall. Boston Symphony/Daniele Gatti; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo; Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Mahler: Symphony No. 3.

I Love Youth Orchestras

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

by Sedgwick Clark


Why? The kids aren’t jaded. No repertoire is too daunting. Their enthusiasm nearly always makes up for any momentary technical shortcoming. One skips concerts at Juilliard at his or her peril and often encounters first-rate conductors that the Philharmonic has neglected. Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute just announced a new summer training residency for students from 42 states. Beginning in late June, they will train at Purchase College (N.Y.) and be conducted in their first concerts by Valery Gergiev, with Joshua Bell as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony and a new work by American composer Sean Shepherd complete the program, to be performed at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, and in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London (dates tba).

The ensemble’s name, “National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America,” reminds me of a thrilling concert I heard in London in 1977 by the National Youth Orchestra of Britain. Pierre Boulez conducted one of his signature programs: Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta; Berg, Violin Concerto, with Itzhak Perlman as soloist; Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring. Afterwards, he couldn’t contain his excitement at having conducted The Rite with 146 players. I counted 16 double basses and equivalent numbers in the other string bodies in MUSPAC.

The Berg boasted large orchestral forces as well, but with Boulez’s impeccable ear Perlman soared effortlessly throughout. I had heard Boulez conduct the concerto twice before in concert as well as on record twice, and in each case he downplayed the Viennese dance rhythms in the first movement – but not with Perlman. I saw the violinist at the Aspen Music Festival later that year and asked him how he had gotten Boulez to loosen up. With typical Perlmanian cheer he flipped his right arm in the air dramatically, saying with a grin, “I said, Pierre – dance!”

Some readers may find it odd for me to be essentially reviewing a 36-year-old concert performance, but I just wanted to recall how satisfying a student performance can be. Those British Youths roared through Boulez’s interpretation of The Rite with far more fire than in either of his Cleveland recordings or a later London Symphony performance at Carnegie. I heard several concerts during that three-week stay, but damned if I can remember any of the others.

The critics raved, cluelessly expressing astonishment that the young players were so adept in such “difficult” music – seemingly unaware that the complex rhythms and dissonant harmonies were second nature to their generation. I would like to look forward to the National Youths of the U.S., but for some reason they won’t be playing in New York, just rehearsing in Westchester. Maybe next year.

Chicago’s Legendary Dale Clevenger to Retire

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony begins with a trudging funeral march before bursting out into a wild allegro that climaxes as six French horns whoop up the scale. For over 43 years that rip-roaring moment in a Carnegie Hall performance on January 9, 1970, with the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti, has remained vividly in my mind. For years thereafter their concerts would be the toughest ticket in town, and at the end of this season, the man leading the horn charge will retire. Dale Clevenger will have been the Chicago Symphony’s principal horn player for 47 years when he moves on to teach at Indiana University. His was a level of artistry I’ll never forget.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

3/11 Carnegie Hall. Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano; Warren Jones, piano. James Legg: Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. Barber: Three Songs, Op. 3. American Songbook classics by Ray Henderson, Cole Porter, Edward Confrey, and Irving Berlin.

3/14 Carnegie Hall at 7:00. Orchestra of St. Luke’s/Patrick Summers; Renée Fleming (Blanche), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Stanley), Anthony Dean Griffey (Mitch), Jane Bunnell (Eunice), Andrew Bidlack (Young Collector), and Dominic Armstrong (Steve). Semi-staged performance directed by Brad Dalton. André Previn: A Streetcar Named Desire.

Where does the Concertgebouw Stand?

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

by Sedgwick Clark


Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and its current music director, Mariss Jansons, stopped by Carnegie Hall last week (2/13 and 14) for a pair of concerts to celebrate the ensemble’s 125th anniversary. They were a great success, as always, with everyone on my aisle burbling over its glorious sound and virtuosity.

No doubt whatsoever, it is a great orchestra, and for many of my over-40 years of hearing it in concert it was my favorite European orchestra. But the dark, burnished sonority of yore, cultivated to such full-toned splendor during Bernard Haitink’s tenure (1963-1988), was eviscerated by Riccardo Chailly’s superficial musicianship (1988-2004). And the turnover of orchestral musicians that occurred internationally in the last two decades of the 20th century brought forth a new generation of players who pride clarity over rich, bass-oriented textures. The only orchestra I know that has managed to retain its early-1970s persona resides in Philadelphia, and it remains to be seen what effect its new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will have.

So what effect has Jansons had on the RCO? While one can’t deny his expertise on the podium, I don’t find much personality in his conducting—of the Austro-German repertoire anyway. He was at his best in the first concert, in his accompaniment to Leonidas Kavakos’s kaleidoscopic brilliance in Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Still, it was little more than an expert rendering of the score. Listen to soloist Zoltán Székely and the Concertgebouw in the live world premiere recording under Willem Mengelberg in 1939 for those little nudges of temperament I missed with Jansons or the 1958 Stern/Bernstein/New York Philharmonic studio recording (in its judiciously remixed Prince Charles Edition reissue) for no-holds-barred emotional drama.

Recalling Jansons’ devastating Mahler Sixth Symphony a few years ago on LSO LIVE, I looked forward to the Mahler First, which followed intermission. But despite the orchestra’s powerful, pinpoint playing, the Wayfarer themes didn’t sing, the third movement’s Parodie sections were poker-faced, and in general the slow music was impatient and tempo changes were exaggerated. A disappointment.

Little need be said about the next evening’s Strauss Death and Transfiguration and Bruckner Seventh. Over the weekend I pulled out my recordings of Strauss’s own 1926 Staatskapelle Berlin recording, the 1942 Philadelphia and 1952 NBC Toscaninis, 1960 Monteux/San Francisco, and 1983 Haitink/Concertgebouw of the former, and the 1951Furtwängler and 1974 Karajan, both with Berlin, of the latter. All were different, all sublime in their individual ways. Jansons sped up where Strauss marks Sehr breit (“Very broad”) for the transfiguration theme and sailed through the Wagner tuba threnody after the Bruckner’s second-movement climax. Inexplicable.

David Hamilton (1935-2013)

Another of my heroes is gone. David Hamilton, 78, died at home on February 19 after a long illness. He reviewed records and wrote occasional features for High Fidelity when I began building my record collection in college, and I relied on his insights into 20th-century music, especially that of Stravinsky. His initials at the end of a review meant “must read,” even if I had never heard of the composer.

David was a Princeton grad (A.B., 1956; M.F.A., music history, 1960), where he was the music and recording librarian, 1961-65. He was assistant music editor and then music editor at W.W. Norton, 1965-74, then became music critic of the Nation in 1968 and wrote for many publications during his lifetime. I had the pleasure of editing (if that’s the word, for his copy was immaculate) articles of his at Keynote and Musical America. His Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia (1987) is one of my most frequently used reference books. For many years, he was producer of historical Met Opera broadcasts and wrote notes for the company’s program booklet.

One of the benefits of working in the classical division of Philips and Mercury Records in the early 1970s was that I got to know many writers who were formative in my musical taste. It’s easy to remember my first lunch with David: We were each going to hear Boulez conduct the Philharmonic that evening in what turned out to be one of the great Mahler Sixths I ever heard, and with a grin he pulled out the Mahler Critical Edition score from his briefcase.

We often saw each other at Boulez concerts. The conductor’s Rug Concerts were nearly always sold out, and long lines of the converted would form to get the best seats on the floor. I always arrived early and when the doors opened would storm up the escalator as the ushers shouted, “No running allowed.” (Shades of elementary school!) When David was there, I would save him room. But one night, an all-Schoenberg Rug Concert was only about half full. I remarked after a striking performance of Pierrot Lunaire that it was too bad it hadn’t sold out. “Well, look at it this way,” he replied. “Have you ever seen so many people at a Schoenberg concert?”

David succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, one of those ironies that we who remain find so baffling in those of such extraordinary intellects. His long-time friend Sheila Porter was with him the afternoon before he died and told me that she and his nurse chose James Levine’s Met recording of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro for him to hear.

Short Takes on a Busy Week

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

by Sedgwick Clark

Three Operas

Far be it for this occasional operagoer to butt heads with Peter G. Davis in a work I barely know. “What are you doing at an Italian opera performance?” he asked me in feigned horror on opening night of the Met’s revival of Verdi’s Macbeth (3/15). “I’m here for the conducting—why else?” I replied, and was pleased to read in his review LINK that we agreed on Gianandrea Noseda’s “maximum of lyrical intensity and dramatic energy—Verdi conducting doesn’t come much better than this.” (Why isn’t Noseda conducting regularly at the New York Philharmonic???) On the other hand, Peter also praised Adrian Noble’s “bold and fearless” 2007 updating of Shakespeare’s Scotland to “a fantasy world that suggests a period roughly around the end of World War II.” Such concepts alienate me; I believe that an intelligent audience will have no difficulty apprehending the composer’s intention in a traditional staging. Most of the time, therefore, my eyes were glommed onto the MetTitles. Thomas Hampson conveyed the weak-willed Macbeth well, if a bit reticently. Verdi said that vocal beauty was not important for Lady M, and Nadja Michael filled the bill; but she emanates sex and temperament aplenty, and I look forward to hearing her in a more refined role—say, Salome or Wozzeck’s Marie. On CD my preference remains Leinsdorf’s 1959 Met recording on RCA with Leonard Warren, Leonie Rysanek, and Carlo Bergonzi.

No problems with the next evening at the Met (3/16)—a superbly sung L’Elisir d’Amore with Juan Diego Flórez (whose shenanigans when he drank the elixir were hilarious) and Mariusz Kwiecien in hot pursuit of Diana Damrau. Peter and I were equally charmed by the 1991 production’s pastel candied sets, but this Saturday matinee is their last hurrah. Catch it if you can!

Leon Botstein may look like a mortician when he takes his bows, but he was at his salesman best in extolling the virtues of the late-Romantic Austrian composer Franz Schmidt in a pre-concert lecture. Franz Who? “He was a fabulous composer.” The occasion was LB’s American Symphony unearthing of the composer’s Notre Dame—which, presumably for marketing reasons, was called “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in the advertisements—at Carnegie Hall (3/18). “This is a terrific opera. . . . The music is spectacular. . . . It deserves a production.” To an audience member who asked why he was drawn to forgotten music, he said, wryly, “I like slow starters and also-rans. I hate prodigies and competition winners.” This was the personal Botstein we wish for on the podium, and darned if the opera didn’t deserve it. While I can’t agree that Notre Dame is “the equal of any opera on the stage today,” its Wagner-Bruckner-Strauss-Mahler harmonic impasto is a consistent pleasure to hear (“lovely” was the word most bandied around at intermission), and of course it has a compelling story. Let me add my vote to the reviews of Leslie Kandell in LINK and Vivien Schweitzer in the Times that it does deserve a production and Botstein is the man to do it. His conducting and the orchestra’s playing had passion, commitment, and precision, and the singers were uniformly capable, with the leads more so: bass Burak Bilgili as Quasimodo, soprano Lori Guilbeau as Esmeralda, and baritone Stephen Powell as the Archdeacon. The Collegiate Chorale Singers were fine, although it would be nice if they could stand up in unison at curtain time.

Paganini Caprices Humanized

The prospect of hearing all 24 of Paganini’s devilishly difficult Caprices in a single evening, rat-a-tat-tat, seemed rather a chore on the face of it. But Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine invested the music with warmth and ease, without stinting an iota on the composer’s fabled virtuosity. Moreover, at suitable intervals she interspersed engaging, often witty comments about the works and the composer that kept the evening moving agreeably. For an encore she performed her own Introduction and Variations on “God Defend New Zealand.” The nearly full house at Rockefeller University’s acoustically attractive Caspary Auditorium (3/21), on the far easterly reaches of Manhattan, caused one to wonder why this talented artist—praised by Harris Goldsmith as a notable up and comer in the 2004 Musical America Directory—isn’t heard regularly at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center? Listen to her new Çedille CD “Capricho Latino” and see if you agree.

Murray Perahia, an “Old Master” at His Best

Few are the artists who can lure me back from the country prematurely to hear a Sunday afternoon concert of standards. Murray Perahia is one. Where many attend concerts to hear cherished artists, I’ve always been a repertoire man. My favorites mostly reside in the 20th century. But someone has to carry on tradition, and for my money no one can touch Perahia, as exemplified on Sunday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall (3/25) in works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Chopin. Moreover, I much prefer solo piano in Fisher over Carnegie’s wetter acoustic, and at this concert Perahia’s American Steinway glowed with the tonal beauty and digital dexterity of the old masters at their best.

A Master Clarinetist at 27

Remember the name: Moran Katz. She’s terrific—a young Israeli clarinetist hailed by Harris Goldsmith in the 2011 Musical America Directory. He wrote of her “magnificent color, agility, and breath control” being “magically persuasive in the early Romantics,” and also of her devotion to contemporary music—all of which she demonstrated vividly in John Adams’s clarinet concerto, Gnarly Buttons, at Zankel Hall soon after the Perahia recital. It’s one of Adams’s most attractive works, witty, virtuosic, but also verging on profundity in the final movement, which Katz rendered movingly. There’s star quality here, waiting for the right management.

The admirable Ensemble ACJW, directed on this occasion by David Robertson, also impressed in Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

3/28 Carnegie Hall. San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas; Emanuel Ax, piano. Ruggles: Sun-Treader. Feldman: Piano and Orchestra. Ives: A Concord Symphony (orch. Brant).

3/29 Zankel Hall. Members of the San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas; Kiera Duffy, soprano; Paul Jacobs, organ; Mason Bates, electronics; Newband; Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Partch: Daphne of the Dunes. Mason Bates: Mass Transmission. Harrison: Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra. Del Tredici: Syzygy.

3/30 Zankel Hall. Members of the San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas, host; Jeffrey Milarsky, conductor; Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble; Joan La Barbara, vocalist; Jeremy Denk, piano. Monk: Realm Variations. Reich: Music for Pieces of Wood. Foss: Echoi. Subotnick: Jacob’s Room: Monodrama.

4/2 Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space. Cutting Edge Concerts/Victoria Bond, host. Danjam Orchestra, with Peter McNeely, piano; Rufus Müller, tenor; Jenny Lin, piano. Paul Barnes, piano. Daniel Jamieson: Phantasm; A Desperate Act. Jim McNeely: Tod und Feuer; Der Seiltänzer. Victoria Bond: Leopold Bloom’s Homecoming. N. Lincoln Hanks: Monstre Sacré.

4/3 Alice Tully Hall. Juilliard Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen. Sibelius: Pohjola’s Daughter. Beethoven: Symphony No. 7.

“We Didn’t Hear the Same Concert”

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

by Sedgwick Clark

That’s a traditional reader complaint. But it happens to critics too. Russian violinist Vadim Repin and Lithuanian pianist Itamar Golan have solid careers, and their program last Saturday evening (3/17) in Alice Tully Hall was an enticing selection of works by Janáček, Ravel, Grieg, and Chausson.

From mid-parquet I found Repin’s sound surprisingly coarse and aggressive, as if playing to the last row of Avery Fisher Hall, where he has often performed, rather than the medium-sized Tully. His tone, most deleteriously in Ravel’s jazzy Violin Sonata, was grainy and monochromatic, thick and unsubtle; pizzicatos made scant effect. The same composer’s Tzigane had little gypsy flavor, just headlong virtuosity, and Janáček’s Sonata sounded unaccountably ugly. Chausson’s Poème, which required mostly soft playing, elicited his best moments.

Two seats to my left, The Strad’s Dennis Rooney was filled with praise, although he did suggest that Repin’s violin had problems “in the middle” and would be in the shop next week. Maya Pritsker had been sitting several rows closer and walked back to say hello at intermission, rhapsodizing at how Repin reminded her of David Oistrakh. I reacted with horror and suggested that she stay back with me for the second half. At one particularly unattractive moment in Grieg’s Second Sonata I looked at her and she nodded in understanding; at the end of the work she said he didn’t sound so loud down front.

I was astonished to read Zachary Woolfe’s Times review, stating that “. . . Mr. Repin brought remarkable tone: sweet and focused to the highest reaches of the instrument but never syrupy or heavy. He was game for a wide range of colors—savage attacks and pale whispers—but the atmospherics were less precise and varied: in lyrical passages he tended to be square.” I could agree with only the last part of that sentence.

No movements were listed in the program, which may be why the over-enthusiastic audience applauded between movements—which can’t have helped the performers’ concentration. The stage lighting was distracting as well, throwing shadows on the performers’ faces. A shoddy presentation.

New York Phil Opens Its Archives

Tomorrow (Thursday, 3/22, 10:30 a.m. EST) the NYPhil Archives hosts an “online discussion” of its second release from its steadily burgeoning digital archives: a world-wide discussion of Philharmonic tours from 1943 to 1970. Most important, perhaps, are Leonard Bernstein’s tours with the orchestra to the former Soviet Union, Europe, Japan, and South America. Scholars and musicians from Russia, Japan, Munich, and the United States will join NYP Archivist Barbara Haws and moderator Jeff Spurgeon of New York radio station WQXR for the one-hour event, streamed live via Google Hangout. Click on this link for full info:

Gil Shaham’s Hartmann

Last week I wrote in anticipation of hearing Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funèbre played by Gil Shaham at the Philharmonic and promised a report. It’s not an immediately ingratiating work, and I look forward to the broadcast for further acquaintance. James Keller’s notes mention references to Mahler, Bartók, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, and Hindemith, and when I went backstage I had to admit that I missed them. Gil’s eyes brightened and he played a passage containing an instantly recognizable quote from Stravinsky’s concerto. He hopes to record the piece, and perhaps my ears will be attuned to Hartmann’s allusions by that time.

MTT’s American Mavericks at Carnegie

My most highly anticipated concerts of the season are upon us: Michael Tilson Thomas’s American Maverick’s series, in celebration of the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial season, the first of which are listed below and will continue through the week. Twentieth-century American masters Ives, Ruggles, Cowell, Varèse, Cage, Feldman, and Adams in the big hall with full orchestra during the coming week. Then on Thursday and Friday in Carnegie’s mid-size Zankel Hall, members of the SFSO will perform works by Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, David Del Tredici (his Syzygy, which Michael told me 40 years ago was a masterpiece), Steve Reich, Lukas Foss, and New York premieres of hot-off-the-press works by Musical America’s 2012 Composer of the Year Meredith Monk, Mason Bates, and Morton Subotnick.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

3/21 Rockefeller University. Rachel Barton Pine, violin. Paganini: Caprices (24).

3/25 Avery Fisher Hall at 3:00. Murray Perahia, piano. Bach French Suite No. 5. Beethoven: Sonata No. 27, Op. 90. Brahms: Klavierstücke, Op. 119. Schubert: Sonata in A, D. 664. Chopin: Polonaise in C-sharp minor; Prelude in F-sharp minor; Mazurka in C-sharp minor; Scherzo in C-sharp minor.

3/25 Zankel Hall at 7:30. Ensemble ACJW/David Robertson; Moran Katz, clarinet. Wagner: Siegfried Idyll. Ligeti: Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments. Adams: Gnarly Buttons. Haydn: Symphony No. 8 (“Le soir”).

3/26 Zankel Hall. So Percussion. Works by Cage, Cenk Ergün, Matmos, Dan Deacon, and Jason Treuting.

3/27 Carnegie Hall. San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas; St. Lawrence String Quartet; Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, Jessye Norman, vocalists. Cage: Selections from Song Books. Cowell: Synchrony. Adams: Absolute Jest. Varèse: Amériques.

3/28 Carnegie Hall. San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas; Emanuel Ax, piano. Ruggles: Sun-Treader. Feldman: Piano and Orchestra. Ives: A Concord Symphony (orch. Brant).

Finding the Right Gimmick

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

by Sedgwick Clark

Shaham’s 1939 Dark Horse

Gil Shaham had an epiphany. After years of recognition as one of the brightest young lights of the concert circuit, the Israeli-American violinist conjured one of the most imaginative programming concepts in years. He had been struck by how many violin concertos written in the 1930s had entered the basic repertoire: Stravinsky (1931), Berg and Prokofiev Second (1935); then, in 1939 alone, the same year that Hollywood produced perhaps its greatest year ever, the Bartók, Hindemith, Walton, Britten, and Barber concertos. Since 2009 he has performed all of these but the Hindemith and Britten, and in December, when he received Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award for 2012, he promised that he would get to those too.

But there are many other concertos on the periphery waiting to be discovered—as Dennis D. Rooney mentioned in his tribute to Shaham in the Musical America Directory—waiting for the right performer to bring them alive to a public that loves the tried and true but welcomes a little spice too. The Szymanowski Second (1932) is one; Henryk Szeryng introduced it to me at a New York Philharmonic concert nearly 40 years ago. And after four decades of over a hundred concerts a season, countless radio broadcasts, and the collection and partial deaccession of over 20,000 LPs and 10,000 CDs, I’m about to be introduced to another ’30s violin concerto at a Philharmonic concert—this time courtesy of Gil Shaham, who gave the Walton concerto such a virtuoso turn with this orchestra last spring. The work is Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funebre (1939). Astonishingly (to me, anyway), I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a note of Hartmann’s music. Shaham will perform this concerto with the New York Philharmonic and David Zinman on March 15, 16, 17, and 20. Who knows? As with Szymanowski it may be a new love affair. I’ll let you know.

As a warmup to hearing Gil again in concert, I listened this past weekend to two Shaham CDs on his own Canary Classics label, which he founded several years ago when his previous label, Deutsche Grammophon, didn’t want to record a disc of Fauré chamber music. An all-Prokofiev disc (ATM CD 1555) includes the two violin sonatas, Opp. 80 and 94, the Five Melodies, Op. 35, and three Heifetz transcriptions sandwiched between the larger works. It’s a great CD, with the violinist contributing subtleties of dynamic shading and phrasing that elevated these works far beyond my previous estimation; he is ideally partnered by his sister, Orli Shaham. The sound, superbly produced by Eric Wen, matches the performers in its breathtaking realism. My preferred recording of the sonatas was previously the ’70s Perlman-Ashkenazy (most recently paired on an RCA CD with Perlman’s peerless recording of the Second Concerto with Leinsdorf and Boston). Henceforth, I’ll reach for the Shahams. Another superior Shaham CD on Canary is called “Virtuoso Violin Works” by Sarasate (CC07). This time Gil shares violin duties with his wife, Adele Anthony, and the pianist is Akira Eguchi. The four tracks requiring orchestral accompaniment feature the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León conducted by Alejandro Posada.

The Rest Is Noise in London

Another brilliant programming connection will dominate London’s Southbank Centre next season. It takes the subject of American music critic Alex Ross’s award-winning book The Rest Is Noise as a stepping-off point, and I quote:

“In 2007 Alex Ross wrote the seminal book The Rest Is Noise – listening to the Twentieth Century. Throughout 2013 we bring the book alive, with nearly 100 concerts, performances, films, talks and debates. We will take you on a chronological journey through the most important music of the 20th century to dramatise the massive political and social upheavals. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, with over 30 concerts, is the backbone of the festival that reveals the stories behind the rich, exhilarating and sometimes controversial compositions that have changed the way we listen forever.”

BBC Four is also involved in the project, assuring that the Foggy City will be awash in 20th-century music next season (see link).

NOW, I ask you, my good friends at Lincoln Center: Here’s a concept inspired by an internationally acclaimed book by an American author, published in America (Farrar, Straus, Giroux). With all your resources and a campus made for a project of such scope, why . . . ? But that’s a hopeless query. The Brits beat us to it, and no arts org on this coast is likely to jump off the 20th-century music cliff in today’s economic climate.

A New Carlos Kleiber Bio—in ENGLISH!

Alison Ames informs me that Corresponding with Carlos: A biography of Carlos Kleiber by Charles Barber has been published by Kindle, available through Amazon for $52.69. The reader reviews, which seem astute, are raves, and two of the reviewers find the price well worth it. Here’s the link:

American readers frustrated by the existence of three bios in German may click on this link for info (they’ll still be frustrated, of course, but at least the info will be available to them):

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

3/15 Metropolitan Opera. Verdi: Macbeth. Gianandrea Noseda (cond.). Thomas Hampson, baritone; Nadja Michael, soprano; Dimitri Pittas, tenor ; Günther Groissböck, bass.

3/16 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/David Zinman; Gil Shaham, violin. Hartmann: Concerto funebre. Beethoven: Symphony Nos. 1 and 3.

3/17 Walter Reade Theater.1:30 The Callas Effect. 3:00 Callas on Film.

3/17 Alice Tully Hall. Vadim Repin, violin; Itamar Golan, piano. Janácek: Violin Sonata. Ravel: Violin Sonata. Violin Sonata No. 2. Chausson: Poème. Ravel: Tzigane.

3/18 Carnegie Hall. American Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein; Stephen Powell, Lori Guilbeau, Robert Chafin, Burak Bilgili, Corey Bix, soloists; Collegiate Chorale Singers. Schmidt: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (in concert).

3/21 Rockefeller University. Rachel Barton Pine, violin. Paganini: Caprices (24).

New York Was His “Howieland”

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

by Sedgwick Clark

It’s a most improbable New York story: Broadway salutes a theater critic, of all things, by dimming its lights during prime box-office time prior to curtain. How often has that happened? No one would have been more astonished to receive this honor than its recipient, Howard Kissel, theater critic of the New York Daily News for 20 years, who died on Friday (2/24) at age 69 of complications from a 2010 liver transplant.

Howard and I shared a Midwestern upbringing and undying gratitude for living in New York City and being able to partake of its wonders. He was as unassuming, knowledgeable, and gentlemanly a member of the Fourth Estate as one could imagine. His critical judgments were direct, perceptive, and never gratuitously personal, laced with a droll, understated wit that always left one smiling. I had met Howard at the Russian Tea Room back in the 1970s when he was arts editor of Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine but only got to know him well in the ’90s. In between, he appeared in his one and only film as Woody Allen’s manager in Starlight Memories (1980). He wrote a biography of David Merrick and a study of Stella Adler’s teaching techniques. We saw each other frequently at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, when we would compare notes and I could grill him about shows I should try to sandwich between my concertgoing. I never received a bum steer.

An S.R.O. audience at Howard’s funeral yesterday shared many tears and much laughter as he was remembered. His sisters, Anne and Judy, affectionately eulogized their big brother, saying that he always seemed to be from another planet, which they called “Howieland.” A friend recounted that Howard had been on a list for a liver transplant for some time, but when the hospital finally called he discovered he had tickets that evening for City Center’s Encores! presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s cult musical Anyone Can Whistle and opted for the show. It would be months before he got a second chance for a new liver.

Musical America was fortunate to have Howard writing theater reviews for its Web site on occasion in recent years, and he blogged under the title “The Cultural Tourist” for the Daily News and, more recently, the Huffington Post, in which he filed his last, bittersweet entry three days before his death. Both the News and the Times printed obits worthy of his charmed life.

And then, on Tuesday at 7 p.m., Broadway dimmed its lights for a minute in recognition of one of its own.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

3/2 Carnegie Hall. Vienna Philharmonic/Lorin Maazel. Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1, 5, and 7.

3/5 Zankel Hall. Making Music, Jeremy Geffen, moderator. Soloistes XXI. Saariaho: Echo; Nuits, Adieux; Lonh; From the Grammar of Dreams; Tag des Jahrs.

3/6 Carnegie Hall. Boston Symphony/John Oliver. Tanglewood Festival Chorus/John Oliver. Christine Brewer, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo; Simon O’Neill, tenor; Eric Owens, bass-baritone. Beethoven: Missa solemnis.

A Genuine Jolt at the NY Phil

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

by Sedgwick Clark

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic are on a European tour for a couple of weeks, and for a change I didn’t roll my eyes in despair when I saw the list of repertoire. His predecessors as music director, Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel, for all their superb work at building the ensemble, utilized Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony (1894) as the orchestra’s calling card. But not only has Gilbert leapt ahead half a century to show off the ensemble with another Philharmonic commission conducted by its composer at its premiere, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1946), on February 17 he has included the U.K. premiere of Thomas Adès’s hot-off-the-press Polaris, which the Phil played in its New York City premiere only a month ago. Moreover, he has also programmed Composer in Residence Magnus Lindberg’s 1997 Féria three times.

The repertoire list below must come as a genuine jolt to anyone who has looked at how the orchestra presents itself to the world. Not even Zubin Mehta, who was not averse to contemporary music during his tenure, had the nerve to acknowledge the 20th century so thoroughly on tour. The only German chestnut here is the Beethoven Violin Concerto. And while Lang Lang plays the First Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto three times, he also plays Bartók’s Second Concerto thrice on a bracing program that begins with the Lindberg piece and ends with Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony.

Don’t get me wrong. These programs are hardly the adventures of the Boulez years. But when it seems that everyone’s idea of selling tickets these days is to advance to the rear, I applaud Gilbert and my home orchestra for making a statement on tour with meaty works by Bartók, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev and hors d’oeuvres by Adès and Lindberg.

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor

Feb. 2, 8:00 pm (Cologne, Philharmonie)
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin
Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2

Feb. 3, 8:00 pm (Luxembourg, Salle de Concerts)
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin
Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2

Feb. 4, 8:00 pm (Luxembourg, Salle de Concerts)
Lang Lang, piano
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

Feb. 6, 8:00 pm (Paris, Salle Pleyel)
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin
Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2

Feb. 7, 8:00 pm (Paris, Salle Pleyel)
Lang Lang, piano
Lindberg: Féria
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

Feb. 8, 8:00 pm (Frankfurt, Alte Oper)
Lang Lang, piano
Lindberg: Féria
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

Feb. 9, 8:00 pm (Frankfurt, Alte Oper)
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin
Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2

Feb. 11, 8:00 pm (Düsseldorf, Tonhalle)
Lang Lang, Piano
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

Feb. 1, 8:15 pm (Amsterdam, Concertgebouw)
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin
Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2

Feb. 14, 8:15 pm (Amsterdam, Concertgebouw)
Lang Lang, piano
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

Feb. 16, 7:30 pm (London, Barbican)
Mahler: Symphony No. 9

Feb. 17, 7:30 pm (London, Barbican)
Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano
Adès: Polaris (U.K. Premiere)
Berlioz: Les nuits d’été
Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2

Feb. 18, 4:00 p.m. (London, Barbican)
Young People’s Concert: Bernstein’s New York
Leonard Bernstein’s New York
Jamie Bernstein, host
Benjamin Grosvenor, piano
Bernstein/Peress: Overture to West Side Story
Copland: “Skyline” from Music for a Great City
Strayhorn: “Take the ‘A’ Train”
Bernstein: “Ain’t Got No Tears Left,” from On the Town
Bernstein: “The Masque,” from Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety
Bernstein: Three Dance Episodes from On the Town
                        The Great Lover
                        Lonely Town Pas de Deux
                        Times Square 1944

Feb. 18, 8:00 p.m. (London, Barbican)
Lang Lang, piano
Lindberg: Féria
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

Stage Door Johnny Dept.
Tuesday night while picking up tickets for Porgy and Bess, I found myself standing next to playwright Neil Simon. I try not to bother celebrities, and I succeeded for a few seconds, but I couldn’t resist telling him that on my first night after moving to New York from Muncie over 43 years ago I saw George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton in his Plaza Suite on Broadway, and what a great introduction it was to my new home. He seemed genuinely pleased and thanked me for telling him. A nice man.

Looking Forward
My week’s scheduled concerts:

2/8 Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Gluck: Armide. Juilliard Orchestra/Jane Glover. Emalie Savoy (Armide), Alexander Hajek (Hidraot), David Portillo (Renaud), Alexander Lewis (Artémidore), Luthando Qave (Ubalde), Noah Baetge (Le Chevalier Danois), Wallis Giunta (Phénice), Devon Guthrie (Sidonie), Evan Hughes (Aronte), Renée Tatum (La Haine), Soo Yeon Kim (La Naïade), Pureum Jo (2nd Coryphée), Deanna Breiwick (Une Bergère), Lilla Heinrich-Szász (Lucinde), and Raquel González (Mélisse).

2/14 Carnegie Hall. Philadelphia Orchestra/Charles Dutoit; James Ehnes/violin. Martin: Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto. Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra.

Omus in Person

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

by Sedgwick Clark

I first met Omus Hirshbein in Carnegie Hall’s executive offices, where he worked for a brief time in 1973 between tenures at the Hunter College Concert Bureau and the 92nd Street Y. He was walking out of a planning meeting, saying in frustration to anyone nearby, “They won’t listen to me—they should be emphasizing the sound of Carnegie Hall.” Guess what Carnegie’s subscription campaign was the next season, after Omus left for the Y? There he would create a concert series that for two decades would dominate the chamber-music field in New York (and annoy the hell out of me because it was such a nuisance to get to from my apartment near Lincoln Center).

We became friends over the years, especially after buying one of his pianos several years ago when his upper West Side apartment could no longer house two Steinways. Every time my wife and her four-hands partner, the composer and conductor Victoria Bond, get together to play, we think of Omus and his wife, Jessica.

Omus died on December 31st after a long decline due to Alzheimer’s. It seems especially tragic that one whose mind was so fertile would leave us in such a manner. I’m sorry I took so long to take note of him in this forum. Perhaps I was stymied because Brian Kellow, who worked for Omus at the Y in the 1980s, captured his personality and accomplishments so warmly and vividly in an Opera News piece, as did Allan Kozinn in his New York Times obituary (January 7, 2012). So I decided I would do something different and reprint Omus’s own typically impassioned words from a panel discussion on the programming of classical music, which appeared in the 1995 Musical America Directory. Participants with Omus in the discussion were industry V.I.P.s Deborah Borda, Eugene Carr, Mary Lou Falcone, Christopher Hunt, and Jane Moss. I highly recommend your reading it; check out the Services section on top of the desktop. You may find, as I did when I read it again, that it could have been recorded yesterday.

Omus Hirshbein: “I think there are two reasons why people like to go to concerts these days. One is being addressed by the kind of programming that the American Symphony is doing. Back in 1986 I agreed to put together a series of eight concerts for the Museum of Modern Art exhibition called “Vienna 1900.” It had to do with the years of the Vienna Secession, which are roughly 1898-1918, and the composers were Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky, Schmidt. And I said to them, “But no one will come.” To my surprise, tickets were being scalped on 53rd Street. I saw virtually none of the usual New York music people at those eight concerts. Audience members were reading, they were seeing the paintings, they were seeing the workshop of Hoffman, and they were hearing a group of composers described by curator Kirk Varnedoe as part and parcel of the Secession, and they went. Okay, that’s one reason.

“The other, of course, is that music is supposed to touch the heart. And it’s supposed to touch the soul. Now, there was a period of 40 or 50 years when what was new was ugly. Sorry, it was mostly ugly. And the legatees of those Viennese geniuses—and I speak of Schoenberg as a genius—made it worse. They became academic, producing a system of writing in this country that was not for the public. Now, there are some young people writing music today who are mobbed by audiences. I’m talking about Aaron Kernis, and Bright Sheng, and there are others. And maybe it signals a reversal of that horrible trend where what was new was impossible to listen to. That’s all I can hope for, because the teaching of music has become of little importance in most of the major cities today as they cope with their social and educational problems.

“Let me just add that money is really an issue. And I’m not talking about balancing budgets. On the wall in my new office is a blowup of an advertisement from 1971, announcing a repeat concert of Victoria de los Angeles and Alicia de Larrocha doing a program of Spanish tonadillas and whatnot. I ask people to look at it because it has tremendous meaning—and finally down at the bottom, they come across what is really disturbing about it. And this is 1971, folks. The top price at the Hunter College Concert Bureau, where this took place, in a 2,200-seat house, was a dollar below Carnegie Hall and a dollar below Lincoln Center: six and a half dollars. A movie was three bucks, or three and a half. A musical event of that magnitude was twice the price of a movie. And that was prevailing.

“Now, I throw down a gauntlet to the commercial interests that have ruined our business. I assure you that Mostly Mozart once was a three- and four-dollar ticket. Commercial interests, and the interests of unions, have hurt us a great deal. This not a high-tech business, this is not the movies, this is not mass media, and we are paying the kind of monies out that would say it’s mass media, and it ain’t anything like that.

“. . . I had a staff of music lovers in my previous job. Music lovers. A couple of them were married, they were in their thirties, and you know what they do? They get together with their friends in a restaurant, and they spend an evening, and that’s all they can afford to do; they are making $23,000 and $24,000 a year, and they cannot afford to go to these concerts.

“. . . There’s another side of the coin. Once the performer becomes recognizable, there is the most extraordinary avarice to get the fees up as fast as possible. And that, for me, is what has wrecked the business. An artist could go on the road and make a decent living at fees somewhere in the $5,000 or $6,000 range and that’s about all that anybody out there in the hinterlands can afford. Now, I think maybe that’s all I have to say.”

Of course, it wasn’t all he had to say. His last professional endeavor was to found, with his former Y colleague Jacqueline Taylor, a series of free public concerts with major artists that they called “Free for All at Town Hall.” They wrote about its genesis in the 2004 edition of Musical America Directory, and we can still look forward to these concerts each spring. Martin Riskin, who is now president and artistic director of the series, tells me that the upcoming concerts will be dedicated to Omus.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

2/1 Paul Hall. FOCUS! Festival. Cage: Five Songs (1938); Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard (1950); Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939); Etudes Boreales, Nos. 1 & 3 (1978); Sonnekus² (1985); Satie Cabaret Songs; Child of Tree (1975); The Perilous Night (1944).

2/7 Rodgers Theatre. Gershwin: Porgy and Bess. Audra McDonald (Bess), Norm Lewis (Porgy), David Alan Grier (Sportin’ Life).

1/8 Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Gluck: Armide. Juilliard Orchestra/Jane Glover. Emalie Savoy (Armide), Alexander Hajek (Hidraot), David Portillo (Renaud), Alexander Lewis (Artémidore), Luthando Qave (Ubalde), Noah Baetge (Le Chevalier Danois), Wallis Giunta (Phénice), Devon Guthrie (Sidonie), Evan Hughes (Aronte), Renée Tatum (La Haine), Soo Yeon Kim (La Naïade), Pureum Jo (2nd Coryphée), Deanna Breiwick (Une Bergère), Lilla Heinrich-Szász (Lucinde), and Raquel González (Mélisse).

Cellphones and Their Ilk

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

by Sedgwick Clark  

Many years ago I was sitting next to the p.r. director of the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall when a cellphone went off as Simon Rattle conducted. When the piece ended I asked him if that happened in Berlin. “Everywhere,” he said sadly.   

I left for vacation two days after the cellphone brouhaha at the New York Philharmonic last week, when the ringer in front-row center went off during the last page of Mahler’s Ninth and Alan Gilbert courageously stopped the orchestra until the thing was turned off. The explanation and the miscreant’s subsequent phone apology to Maestro Gilbert got loads of coverage, even on television. But as I passed through the airline’s frisker at Newark Airport I had no doubt what should be done: All concertgoers should be required to pass through metal detectors, and those who fail the test must check their cellphones, blackberries, iphones, et al. in the coat room before they are allowed to enter the concert hall.   

Unmuffled coughing (nearly always in a quiet moment) is annoying enough, but I’ve yet to encounter anyone with a good word to say about cellphone beepers in concerts. I recall the woman at a Philharmonic matinee over ten years ago who answered her cellphone to say loudly, “I can’t talk now—I’m in a concert.” Valery Gergiev ignored her, but I’ll bet Kurt Masur would have turned around and let her have it. (Which reminds me of the story of Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the final six widely spaced chords of Sibelius’s Fifth and several audience members applauding prematurely; he turned around and bellowed, “Savages,” before turning back to the orchestra and finishing the symphony without skipping a beat.)  

I wonder what Herbert von Karajan would have done?   

Gilbert’s Mahler

I heard the first of the series of Gilbert’s Mahler Ninths and found myself among the “some” mentioned by the Times‘s Tony Tommasini who might prefer a more emotional—nay, intense, searching, devastating—interpretation. I cannot go without mentioning Principal Cellist Carter Brey’s solo just before the last page of the work, which in a few seconds conveyed all the Mahlerian eloquence and heart-rending depth I found missing from the other 80 minutes. There are many extraordinary musicians in the Philharmonic, and Brey is among the uppermost.