Saturday, October 19, 2019

Review: The Juilliard Orchestra plays Thorvaldsdottir, Prokofiev, and Bartók

WHO: The Juilliard Orchestra; Jeffrey Milarsky, conductor; Jaewon Wee, violin
WHAT: ANNA THORVALDSDOTTIR Metacosmos; PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto No. 2; BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra
WHERE: Alice Tully Hall
WHEN: October 17, 2019 at 7:30pm

God, why is the music world so small?

I think I jinxed it by mentioning that I didn't see anyone I knew at the Dover Quartet the other day. But every concert since then, I've randomly run into at least one person I know.

As soon as I'm through Alice Tully security check, I run into a music camp friend. Then another. Then I sit down, and I find out that no fewer than five close music camp friends are in the Juilliard Orchestra for this concert.

Image result for it's a small world gif
Anyway, my last two reviews have been really, really long, so I'm going to try to keep this one relatively short. I saw the Juilliard Orchestra last year with phenom conductor Barbara Hannigan (who was giving a recital across town at the Park Avenue Armory -- sold out to the rafters, naturally), and they sounded tremendous. The centerpiece of that program was also Bartók (his suite from The Miraculous Mandarin), so I figured, why not?

From my sample size of two (2) concerts, I've come to a conclusion about the Juilliard Orchestra: they'll never be bad. It's an orchestra comprised of the best young musicians around. The intention, the musicality, that will always be there.

But sometimes, Juilliard students have busy weeks. That's what this concert sounded like: an orchestra of phenomenal musicians, each of whom had fifteen million other things on their minds this week.

Consequently, the Thorvaldsdottir was probably the best-played thing on the program, and my favorite. Metacosmos sort of smears time in a way, blurring the lines between beats such that precision is not so important as transparent, visceral emotion. That's kind of a given for most of the musicians at Juilliard -- another day at the office.

But the orchestra began to fall apart behind Jaewon Wee's Prokofiev. Some of the orchestra knew the parts, but there was a critical mass of musicians who failed to look at the conductor's beat, resulting in a slow, but steady phasing effect between strings, winds, and brass. Luckily, Wee put up a well-polished performance that all but covered the missteps of the orchestra. I didn't necessarily feel like I was in the palm of her hand, but hey, we can probably blame that on the orchestra.

The Bartók was vigorous, if a little sloppy. The couples in the giuoco delle coppie ("game of the couples" were coordinated and well-rehearsed; the trumpets and trombones deserve a special mention for the chorale at the midpoint of that movement. The principals were all so very well-prepared, every solo sending my jaw straight to the floor. But once again, that phasing effect was persistent and ever-present. Maybe that burden falls on the conductor -- Milarsky's conducting seemed serviceable, though not particularly clear.

So, in conclusion, the Juilliard Orchestra is always worth seeing, even when they're not at their finest. When they bring in big name conductors, the quality is usually better (a friend was telling me about a few weeks ago, when Karina Canellakis conducted Ein Heldenleben -- best concert he'd ever been to). But when it's a staff conductor, just be warned: a bunch of great musicians do not an orchestra make.

For the love of god, Juilliard Orchestra, treat yourselves to a glass of wine, some Real Housewives, and a nap before your next concert. You all deserve it.

Review: Hannah Lash's "Desire" at Columbia

Woman and "Man" (PC: longtime Kinhaven photographer Rob Davidson)

WHO: Kirsten Sollek, contralto; Daniel Moody, countertenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; JACK Quartet; Rachel Dickstein, director; Daniela Candillari, music director
WHAT: HANNAH LASH Desire (world premiere)
WHERE: Miller Theatre @ Columbia
WHEN: October 16, 2019 at 8:00pm

I've been on the board of Yale's undergrad opera company for a couple years now, and I really truly love it. But when programming season comes around, we often hit trouble. There are only so many operas that are a) small enough that they can fit into one of the tiny theaters set aside for student use and b) fit our personnel (see: The Great Tenor Drought of 2017).

So we often end up with operas in one of three categories:
  • court-commissioned Baroque operas that we can pull off with a combined cast and orchestra of 10 people
  • edgy 20th-century chamber operas, often psychological thrillers or horror operas
  • scaled-down productions of classic operas
And I love all that we do. But the thing is...sometimes, it feels like composers always assume that every opera company in existence has infinite money and resources. And increasingly, that is not the case. There's a space in the market for new operas which are compact, minimal, and relevant.

JACK x JACKson Pollock (PC: Rob Davidson)

Luckily, Columbia has identified that void in the repertoire, and is filling it steadily, year by year, with their Chamber Opera Commissioning Initiative. Established in 2017, Desire is their second project; their first show, Missy Mazzoli's Proving Up, met great critical success when it premiered last year. But Columbia has had a long history with chamber opera, premiering works of Britten and Virgil Thomson in the 1940's; more recently, they staged U.S. premieres of works by Olga Neuwirth and Iannis Xenakis.

Unlike much of the modern opera I've seen last year (sorry to @ you again, Chunky, but it was bound to happen sooner or later), Desire didn't feel like it had an overwhelming number of moving parts. The plot was straightforward, if cryptic; the movement onstage was slow and deliberate; it felt weirdly comfortable in the best of all possible ways. This opera seemed to strive towards profundity rather than outright experimentalism, a goal which it met with flying colors.

All of the motion that was taken out of the staging was siphoned into the complex string-quartet score. There was never a moment when Hannah Lash left the room unfilled, whether by scuttling exchanges, insane leaping figures (yes, I saw that time when the cellist had to leap a full foot and a half up his fingerboard), or lilting nods to the passion-waltzes of high romantic opera.

In isolation, the pacing of the libretto (written by the composer) remained largely the same throughout -- the sentence length, structure, and syntax barely varied throughout. But Lash's plain words were brought to life by the virtuosic vocal lines; the composer altered the rhythmic elements of the music to impart a broad emotional palette into the text. In a way, it was reverse text painting: the music seemed to determine the meaning of the text, rather than vice versa.

The three-person cast was headed by contralto Kirsten Sollek as a woman who existed in two worlds: a dark gray bedroom and a shimmering mystery-garden. Though contraltos are rarely main characters, here it seemed right, her rich, chesty mid-range nestling squarely between the shrill countertenor of the garden inhabitant (designated in the program as a man, but his costume suggesting, in the wise words of my date, "more of an origami Transformer") and the concerned baritone of the woman's husband.

The final showdown (PC: Rob Davidson)

Daniel Moody's voice was exactly what I wanted out of a new-music countertenor, bright and full of forward-propelling vibrato. Christopher Dylan Herbert (see my review of him from this summer) filled his sweet voice with a surging sense of bewilderment and discomfort. And the seemingly-superhuman JACK Quartet....I simply don't think there are words. The amount of collective brainpower, acuity, and passion they bring to these treacherous new scores never fails to amaze. And yet, through the complex ebbs and flows of the music, they always maintain the most incredible sense of calm, as if they are incapable of making a mistake.

This production was genius. I can only hope it comes back around during my lifetime. Any regional new music ensemble would (or at least should) jump at the chance to stage this show -- I know I'd make the trek to see it again.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review: Dover Quartet and Emanuel Ax at Zankel Hall (and a few updates)

Carnegie didn't have a photographer for the concert, so I'm reusing photos from Dover's
Caramoor concert this summer. Sue me. (Actually, please please don't.) [PC: Gabe Palacio]

WHO: Dover Quartet; Emanuel Ax, piano
WHAT: BRITTEN String Quartet No. 1; BRAHMS String Quartet No. 3; SCHUMANN Piano Quintet
WHERE: Zankel Hall @ Carnegie
WHEN: October 15, 2019 at 7:30pm

First update: I'm on Twitter now! Follow me at to keep up with all of CMG's adventures!

Second update: I made it to October break in (more or less) one piece. And you know what that means: another concert binge.

I know I've been making noise about a ten-concerts-in-five-days October blitz. But a couple weeks ago, after one too many nights staying up until 3am doing schoolwork, I looked at the list of ten concerts I had planned and only one thought popped into my head:

"This feels like a bad idea."

So I'm only going to seven (maybe eight) concerts this break. And I'm going to blog about all of them, but it's not going to be a formal concert blitz. I'm just going to blog for fun. You know, like a normal blogger -- quality over quantity (what the hell was I on when I thought up of #1Summer50Concerts?). The reviews will come out over the next few weeks.

I love finding ways to put off schoolwork. So, a few weeks ago, when I should have been writing papers, I reached out on a whim to the Carnegie press office, asking if they had any extra tickets for this particular concert. They were so nice, but the gist of what they said was: "Get in line."

Yesterday morning, literally the day of the concert, I got the coveted email: there's an extra ticket, it's yours if you want it, just let me know. I squealed. My breakfast date (Sarah, I know you're reading this) rolled her eyes and didn't talk to me for the rest of the meal.

I dropped my alternate concert plans (we all have those, don't we?) and booked it to Carnegie as soon as my train got in (twenty minutes late, by the way). I sat down and looked around; for the first time in who knows how long, I didn't recognize a single other person in the audience.

I see good concerts all the time. I see great concerts less often, but still regularly. But only once in a while do I see a concert and think, "Wow, that was stupid good."

Well, the Dovers are stupid good.

 PC: Carlin Ma

Okay, confession time. You may recall that I reviewed the Dover Quartet this summer for Opera News, but I couldn't really tell you guys what I thought because I didn't want to give the magazine old news. Well, that review is now in print, so I can say whatever I want. So full disclosure: I've known that the Dover Quartet was fantastic for, like, four months now. But now I can finally say it loud and proud: I'm a diehard Dover fan.

Of course, I'm glad I got to see this whole program. But I'm especially glad that I got to hear the Dovers' take on Britten. Outlandish but not wholly unfollowable, Britten's first quartet proved the perfect canvas for Dover to release their inner cheekiness. The quartet managed to invoke that dry British sense of humor in a way that was full, unfettered, and most importantly, entertaining. The tender violin duets of the first movement were so theatrically interrupted by bawdy prestos that there may as well have been a laugh track. Cellist Camden Shaw's eyebrows tracked the satire through the off-kilter scherzo. The slow movement highlighted violist Milena Pájaro-van de Stadt's flawless playing (to quote the older European gentleman sitting next to me: "Viola playing doesn't get much better than that!"). And the blazing three-minute finale brought everything to a close with adequate pomp and circumstance.

Oh yeah, the Brahms was also great. But like...the Britten.

This is how Barber originally wrote the Adagio for Strings before revising it
twice (once for string orchestra, once for choir). I think it's best for quartet.

And then there was the Schumann. It takes one hell of a quartet to be a match for Emanuel Ax, and I've seen instances where Ax plays with a chamber group that is most certainly not up to his level. But this was perfect. Dover is very new-school, Ax is very old-school, and the collaboration let each explore aspects of the other's playing. The quartet was a little bit warmer and rounder; Ax kept his crisp touch, but was lighter on the pedal than usual. The result was a harmonious tone that could only be described not as the Dover Quartet, not as Emanuel Ax, but as "the Dover Quartet with Emanuel Ax."

The performance was so fantastic that I barely noticed the faint, but ever-present sound of the NQRW trains roaring past the underground Zankel Hall. Whose bright idea was that, again?