By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • December 10, 2012
The early 18th century was a great time to be alive, if you happened to love music. Not only was Johann Sebastian Bach churning out one masterpiece after another, but a dozen other top-notch composers — from Handel to Vivaldi to Telemann — were all thriving as well, generating what cellist David Teie of the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra calls a “firestorm” of creative energy.
The extraordinary music that resulted was the subject of a fascinating concert on Sunday afternoon by the Eclipse players — a group largely made up of musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra — at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria. Narrowing its focus to the concerto grosso form, in which small groups of soloists are pitted against a larger orchestra, the ensemble contrasted Vivaldi’s relatively light, open style with the harmonic complexity and densely woven counterpoint of Bach — and showed both off to elegant advantage.
It’s always a pleasure to hear the NSO players in solo roles, and Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Flutes in C, RV 533, which opened the program, received a lighthearted and completely charming performance from Carole Bean and Alice Kogan Weinreb, who wove their melodic lines together in a kind of affectionate, playful echoing of each other. Even more satisfying was Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C Minor, with Nicholas Stovall and Elisabeth Adkins on oboe and violin, respectively; the two showed how profound and emotionally complex the concerto grosso form could be. Stovall has a gorgeous tone (think chocolate with a little honey in it), and he and Adkins navigated Bach’s tightly argued counterpoint deftly and with convincing authority; a beautiful, captivating performance in every way.
Equally impressive was the orchestra, which played with extraordinary precision and cohesion despite the lack of a conductor. In fact, the only out-of-place note in the afternoon came after intermission, when harpsichordist William Neil switched to the organ for the “Offertoire Sur les Grands Jeux” by Francois Couperin. It’s a masterpiece of the baroque, and Neil brought it off with admirable power. But the heavy sound of the organ felt jarring in this otherwise delicately detailed program, as if an elephant had lumbered into the room and was tearing up the violins.
But things quickly got back on track with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin and Cello in B-flat Minor, RV547, thanks to eloquent, thoughtful playing from Teie and violinist Heather LeDoux Green (who seemed to float skyward at times from the sheer beauty of the music). But it may have been the closing work of the afternoon, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048, that was the most intriguing. It’s a constantly shifting, wonderfully protean work where you’re never quite sure which of the nine soloists are in the foreground, and which in the background. The Eclipse players brought it off in a deeply integrated performance, full of subtle nuances and great beauty.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • December 5, 2012
Technical perfection is almost a given among young classical musicians these days; even the most newly minted graduates can toss off virtuosic works with ease. But it’s not as easy to find players who embody the sheer joy of making music, which made Tuesday’s debut performance by miXt — a trio of award-winning soloists from the Young Concert Artists organization — such a remarkable evening. In their freewheeling program at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the players caromed happily from klezmer to Schubert to ragtime to 20th-century modernism, bringing sophistication, imagination and down-to-earth exuberance to everything they played.
Much of that was due to the extroverted Spanish clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester, whose wit and virtuosity were quickly apparent in Bela Bartok’s “Contrasts.” It’s a work from 1938 that bristles with prewar edginess and bite, but Franch-Ballester brought an agreeable warmth to the work, giving the slow “Piheno” movement a kind of serene luminosity, and deepening the sly, ironic jauntiness in the closing “Sebes.”
The lyrical “Three Nocturnes” by Kevin Puts (a former YCA composer-in-residence) that followed received an even more impressive performance, from the quietly exalting clarinet lines of the Con Moto section to the otherworldly grandeur of the Molto Adagio, played with great subtlety and insight by pianist Ran Dank.
Violinist Bella Hristova put her ferocious virtuosity on display in Schubert’s spirited Rondo in B Minor, D. 895, but the real excitement came in the closing works. As Dank churned out the strutting ragtime rhythms of John Novacek’s “Four Rags for Two Jons,” Franch-Ballester unleashed soaring, exuberant lines on the clarinet, tossing in foot-stomping, finger-snapping and the occasional shout as needed. He’s a born showman with a big, rich sound, and Paul Schoenfield’s “Trio” — inspired by Hasidic music — let the three cut loose with a wild, uninhibited performance that brought the audience to its feet.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • December 3, 2012
They were squeezing chairs into every last inch of the Music Room at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, and little wonder: Three of Russia’s most spectacular young soloists had teamed up for an afternoon of mostly-Russian music, and it promised to be an extraordinary afternoon, steeped in the kind of magnificent tragedy that Russians do best. In fact, it was: From the first hushed notes of Rachmaninoff’s “Trio élégiaque,” No. 1, to the almost ecstatic despair of Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, the Hermitage Piano Trio turned in a performance of such power and sweeping passion it left you nearly out of breath.
Rachmaninoff wrote his “Trio élégiaque” in 1892 when he was only 19, but there’s little in this work that feels callow or thin. The Hermitage players — Misha Keylin on violin, cellist Sergey Antonov, and Maxim Mogilevsky at the piano — opened the work with great tenderness, building it with utter naturalness into a searing outpouring of grief. The piano takes a leading role and Mogilevsky shone appropriately, and it’s almost impossible to say too many good things about violinist Keylin (whose phrasing and tone are impeccable) and, in particular, Antonov (who to these ears seems destined for cello superstardom). But more striking even than the individual virtuosity was the profound level of integration among the players, who showed a rare degree of ensemble from beginning to end.
The Rachmaninoff and the Tchaikovsky are a natural pair, linked both in structure and elegaic tone, and bookended the performance. Beethoven’s Variations in G for Piano Trio, Op. 121a (known as the “Kakadu Variations”) provided a lightweight buffer between the two, and the Hermitage turned in an agreeable reading. But it was clear they were reserving their real powers for the Tchaikovsky, a work huge in both size — it’s a good 40 minutes long — and emotion. And it received a huge performance as well, brilliantly calibrated and perfectly understood, with a a final “Allegro risoluto e con fuoco” that swept like a tornado through the room — a bravura performance that brought the audience to its feet.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • November 26, 2012
One of the perks of winning the New York International Piano Competition is a recital at the Phillips Collection, and on Sunday afternoon, the prodigiously gifted Anna Han — who walked off with this year’s prize at the tender age of 16— put on a display of imagination, taste and pianistic firepower that was far beyond her years.
It may have been Han’s naturalism and grace at the piano, though, that impressed the most. In a little-of-everything program that ranged from baroque to contemporary, she showed herself equally at home with Haydn (whose lively Sonata in E, Hob. XVI:31 came off with precision and playful charm), Rachmaninoff (a diaphanous, delicate “Lilacs,” Op. 21, No. 5) and the brilliant young Israeli composer Avner Dorman, whose colorful and accomplished Three Etudes were written for the New York competition. Technically daunting and stylistically complex, the Dorman studies came alive in Han’s hands, from the intricate, twisting lines of “Snakes and Ladders,” to the dark anger of “Funeral March” and the shimmering luminosity of the Ravel-like “Sundrops Over Windy Water.”
Han fully hit her stride in an assured and absolutely engrossing account of Chopin’s “Nocturne” in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1, building its complex tensions to a searing climax. And any doubts about the depth and musicality of Han’s playing were swept away in a bravura performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata in A Minor, Op. 28, No. 3. Played with such incisive power and assurance that you felt you could follow her into battle, Han showed herself completely worthy of the prizes she’s been racking up — a pianist barely at the beginning of her career, but already with a great deal to say.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • November 18, 2012
It’s hard not to like the Apollon Musagète String Quartet. They're young, they’re hip, they have that ultra-cool name and they play with people like Tori Amos. So when this newly minted (and already much-admired) Polish ensemble appeared at the Library of Congress on Friday, it looked like the evening was going to be a blast.
And, it was — though maybe not always in the best sense. From the first brash, bright notes of Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3, the Apollons made it clear they were there to power their way through the evening. Haydn can take that kind of treatment; there’s nothing fragile about his music, and the quartet’s punchy, turn-up-the-amps approach packed a lot of weight into the work. But much of what you look for in Haydn’s quartets — the subtle humor, the crisp interplay among the instruments, the perfectly calibrated dance of ideas — was often lost in the scrum, and you couldn’t help but feel a little battered by the end.
That was the tone throughout the evening: enthusiastic playing undermined by roughness, a tendency toward obvious phrasing and a kind of every-man-for-himself sense of ensemble. Exhilarating at times, it could also be maddening. The dark, complex lyricism of the Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 37 by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, for instance, is rooted in the composer’s harrowing experiences during World War I, but it never really felt convincing — its tenderness milked for effect, its luminous pathos lost to forceful declamation.
But there was much in the evening to admire, as well. The “Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale ‘Saint Wenceslas,’ ” Op. 35a, by Czech composer Josef Suk came off beautifully, and Felix Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13, was full of life and color. The Apollon may not be the most subtle quartet on the planet, but it plays with real vitality and excitement, which not every group can match. A few more years of seasoning, and it could be spectacular.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • November 18, 2012
There’s a lot to be said for downsizing opera. Pare away the usual excesses — the cavernous halls, the lavish sets, the high-priced superstars and the general over-the-topness — and you can take more risks, showcase emerging performers and present music on a more intimate, up-close-and-personal scale.
And the approach works, to judge by Saturday night’s sold-out performance of “Pocket Opera x 2: Love and Witchcraft,” two entertaining “mini-operas” presented by the In Series at the tiny Source theater on 14th Street NW. The two works couldn’t be more different. Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” is a charming baroque masterpiece with an almost comically tragic end, while Manuel de Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” (“Love by Sorcery”) is not even an opera at all, but a searing dance suite written in a 20th-century Andalusian gypsy style.
But it was an inspired combination. Mezzo-soprano Anamer Castrello took the lead in both works, bringing a dark, moving passion to the role of Dido, the queen of Carthage, who is torn from her lover Aeneas (a solid Robert Yacoviello) by witches and the will of the gods. Despite a dauntingly minimal set — a chaise longue, a few sticks and a galvanized steel bucket — a fine young cast largely made up of local singers and dancers brought the “Dido and Aeneas” alive with charm and lighthearted wit. A string quartet under the direction of harpsichordist Paul Leavitt delivered a spirited reading of the score, Adrienne Starr made a deliciously evil and feline Sorceress, and soprano Tia Wortham’s hysterical turn as Mercury was worth the price of admission on its own.
It was Castrello’s evening, though, as she proved in the Falla piece. With music director Carlos Rodriguez at the piano, she sang the role of Candelas — a woman trying to rid herself of the ghost of her dead lover — with elemental, smoldering heat, as dancers Heidi Kershaw and Kyle Lang swirled around the blood-red set in a passionate pas de deux. A fine and often moving evening all around, “Love and Witchcraft” continues through Nov. 26.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • November 12, 2012
Cataclysmic times, it’s often said, produce great art. Take the early 20th century, when a Europe ripped apart by war and social upheaval suddenly found 19th century Romanticism irrelevant — and began giving birth to the revolutionary, exhilarating and world-changing movement known as Modernism.
That transition was the focus of an intriguing concert titled “Between Two Worlds: Jewish Voices in Modern European Music” on Sunday night at the Terrace Theater, where the Ariel String Quartet teamed up with pianist Orion Weiss for the music of composers from Arnold Schoenberg to the brilliant but little-known Erwin Schulhoff — all profoundly shaped by the trauma of their times.
One of the most unusual figures of the period, Schulhoff was a wildly inventive Czech composer (one movement of his 1919 “Five Picturesques” is entirely silent, predating John Cage by decades) who died in a concentration camp in 1942. His String Quartet No. 1, written in 1924, is a virtual snapshot of the era: taut, explosive modernist gestures burst through the music as if impatient to be born. A fascinating work — and necessary listening for anyone interested in the period — it was brought off with style and wit by the young Ariel players.
Orion Weiss, last heard at the Terrace in a brilliant recital back in January, took the stage for the second of Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11 from 1909. Weiss has both powerful technique and exceptional insight, and brought an almost sculptural presence and weight to the music. Erich Korngold’s melodic String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 34 followed, bringing an elegant if not exactly revolutionary close to the first half of the evening. Written in 1945, as the composer abandoned a successful career in Hollywood, it recasts some of his best-known melodies — including the theme from the film “Between Two Worlds” — in a more “serious” classical vein.
But the indisputable climax of the program (which marked the opening of Pro Musica Hebraica’s sixth season) was Ernest Bloch’s magnificent 1923 Quintet for Piano and Strings No. 1. It’s an absolute juggernaut of a work, a pull-out-the-stops gallop into the modern world, full of huge and hungry gestures and ferocious intensity. With Weiss at the piano, the Ariel players seemed to come completely into their own for the first time all evening, playing with exceptional boldness and confidence — a blazing, larger-than-life performance that seemed to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit, even from the depths of chaos.