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Chicago Dishes Out Deep Melodies in New York

Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography

A terrific season of orchestral music at Carnegie Hall continued unforgettably on the evening of Friday, February 9th, with a magnificent concert—the first of two on consecutive nights—given by the superb musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the masterly direction of Riccardo Muti, one of the most esteemed of living conductors.

The eclectic program—which was significant for showcasing less familiar repertory—opened auspiciously with a marvelous performance of Igor Stravinsky’s precocious and delightful Scherzo fantastique, too seldom heard in the concert hall. Also remarkable, and unexpectedly so, was the New York premiere of the surprisingly accessible one-movement Low Brass Concerto—for two trombones, bass trombone, and tuba—by the popular contemporary composer, Jennifer Higdon, who is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. This fine work was commissioned by this orchestra for its renowned brass section, here featuring Jay Friedman, Michael Mulcahy, Charles Vernon, and Gene Pokorny as soloists. But this was an unusually integrated work for a concerto, notable especially for its brilliant orchestral writing and rhythmic dynamism. The composer appeared onstage to receive an enthusiastic ovation.
The second half of the evening was even more extraordinary, beginning with a superlative account of Ernest Chausson’s gorgeous Poème de l’amour et de la mer, exceptionally sung by mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine. Equally impressive was the closing piece, Benjamin Britten’s glorious Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, his celebrated opera. With the audience’s excited response, Muti took the stage to announce what proved to be an exquisite encore, a favorite of his and the ensemble’s, the lovely Notturno, Op. 70, No. 1 of Giuseppe Martucci—it was a wonderful conclusion to one of the best concerts of the season.

Cleaveland Orchestra Excels with Mahler 9

A wonderful season of orchestral music at Carnegie Hall continued strongly on the evening of Tuesday, January 23rd, with the eagerly awaited appearance of the outstanding Cleveland Orchestra under the extraordinary direction of Franz Welser-Möst, one of the finest contemporary conductors. (It was the first of two concerts on consecutive nights, with the second devoted to Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Seasons.)
The program began intriguingly with the New York premiere of Stromab (Downstream) by the prizewinning Johannes Maria Staub, who was the Cleveland Orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow from 2007 through 2009. The work was co-commissioned by the orchestra along with Carnegie Hall—as part of their 125 Commissions Project—the Royal Danish Orchestra, and the Vienna Konzerthaus. Stromabwas inspired by the novella The Willows by the classic writer of ghost stories, Algernon Blackwood. Although the composer states that it was not his “intention to create program music”, the fifteen-minute score does effectively evoke uncanny events and is notable for its impressive orchestration.
The bulk of the concert was a masterly account of Gustav Mahler’s titanic Symphony No. 9, with the kaleidoscopic opening Andante intense, lyrical, and ruminative. The ensuing dance-music Scherzo was ebullient in its ironies, barring the more pensive interludes, while more madcap was the absurdist, fugal Allegro. The ethereal coda of the closing Adagio was ultimately exalting. The musicians received an enthusiastic ovation and I am surely not alone in excitedly looking forward to their return.

Wagner, Mahler &More from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Janine Jansen with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Photo by Richard Termine
A new year of orchestral music at Carnegie Hall opened brilliantly with the appearances on two consecutive evenings in January of the renowned Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the superb direction of Daniele Gatti.
The magnificent program on Wednesday the 18th began gloriously with a masterly reading of Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act III and Good Friday Spell from Parsifal, heavenly music too seldom heard in the concert hall. (Gatti conducted Parsifal marvelously in an unforgettable new production at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013.)
The remainder of the concert was devoted to an astonishing account of Anton Bruckner’s towering Symphony No. 9, especially apposite here for the work’s expression of the composer’s deep Wagnerian sympathies, with deliberate echoes of themes from Parsifal itself in the final movement. The musicians received an ardent ovation.
The second evening was also extraordinary, opening with a work of lesser eminence than the others in these programs, the nonetheless wonderful Violin Concerto No. 1 of Max Bruch, presented here in the best performance of this piece that I can recall hearing in the concert hall, a rendition notable for revealing the beauties of the composer’s undervalued orchestration. The excellent soloist was the lovely, appealing and celebrated Janine Jansen who wore a striking blue gown; she, with other musicians, treated the grateful audience to a beautiful encore: “Nana” from Manuel De Falla's Suite Espagnole II.
The highlight of the concert, however, was its second half, a gripping realization of the stunning Symphony No. 1 of Gustav Mahler, a perfect capstone to the two programs. The artists appropriately garnered rousing applause. I hope these outstanding musicians will return to New York before long and more often than hitherto.

Budapest Festival Orchestra Plays Bach & Beethoven at Lincoln Center

A new year of orchestral music in New York opened splendidly with its first significant concert of the year, the much awaited return—on the afternoon of Sunday, January 14th, to David Geffen Hall—of the incomparable Budapest Festival Orchestra under the brilliant direction of Iván Fischer, presented as part of the Great Performers series of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The house was surprisingly full with few empty seats in the orchestra, despite the bitterly cold weather, attesting perhaps to the reverence with which these musicians are held.

The somewhat heterogeneous program began wonderfully with a sterling account of Johann Sebastian Bach's popular and marvelous Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, played here by a small ensemble on period instruments with the maestro conducting from the keyboard and featuring Gabriella Pivon on the transverse flute—it would nonetheless have been exciting to hear this work as transcribed for the entire orchestra.

The impressive soloist Dénes Várjon then took the stage for what may be the finest rendition I have yet heard in the concert hall of Ludwig van Beethoven’s equally celebrated Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, with the artist playing the composer’s cadenzas. An enthusiastic ovation elicited a terrific encore: the beautiful Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csik by Béla Bartók.

The second half of the program was even more memorable, devoted to an extraordinary realization of the magnificent Symphony No. 2 of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Spirited applause was answered by Fischer, always generous with encores, with a delightful surprise: an arrangement for orchestra and voices of the famous and lovely Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14, by the same composer. I look forward to the next appearance of this glorious ensemble.

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