Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Chronicle of December 2010

December 1

The Radio Dept. and Braids Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY. "The Radio Dept. is from Sweden, and it shares -- with bands like Junip, Kings of Convenience and Peter Bjorn and John -- the Scandinavian fondness for restrained, neatly made pop. Most of its set came from a compilation due for release in the United States in January, the precisely titled Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010, released by Labrador. Performing as a three-man band with programmed rhythm tracks, the Radio Dept. harked back to the guitar-and-keyboard grids of New Order and the urbane whispers of Pet Shop Boys. Early in its career the Radio Dept. placed overlays of noise on its songs, but the band soon realized that it could be just as circumspect without the distortion. Onstage the songs proceeded at steady, moderate midtempos, with arrangements that were full-bodied but never overstuffed. Every so often the band allowed itself a dance beat or a major-chord crescendo approaching the lower elevations of U2. Within the decorous, melodic structures, [Johan] Duncanson was revealing longings, wounds and accusations. He derided Sweden’s government in The New Improved Hypocrisy and confessed to private failings in song after song: 'It breaks my heart to say that when I was in pain / I wanted you to feel the same,' he sang. The music was both a sturdy shelter and an invitation, for the sympathetic, to peer inside.
Braids, the Canadian band that opened the concert, doesn’t follow pop guidelines. It builds its long, changeable songs on busy Minimalistic patterns: loops and drones, overlapping guitar and keyboard lines, contrapuntal vocals that can turn into ethereal chorales. And every so often, out of the hypnotic polyphony, came a lead vocal from Raphaelle Standell-Preston (on guitar) or Katie Lee (on keyboard) that zeroed in on something more down-to-earth: 'What do you say to a man who’s got no taste? / Who’s really got no potential?” The songs -- from Braids’ debut album, Native Speaker, due in January -- evolved gradually but never predictably, and held a good part of the audience rapt" [Jon Pareles, The New York Times, 12/2/10].

December 5

Bach and Forth, with pianist Stephen Prutsman. Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY. "In his teens and 20's in California he played keyboards in rock bands and piano in jazz clubs. But he had thorough conservatory training and won prizes in major international competitions. He has explored world music, arranging and composing some 40 genre-blending works for the Kronos Quartet. His song cycle Piano Lessons was given its American premiere this season by Dawn Upshaw and Emanuel Ax at Carnegie Hall. . . . Prutsman brought the strands of his interests together in a fascinating recital program . . . . Using Bach as a point of reference, he . . . alternated [J. S. Bach compositions] with music ranging from an elegiac ancient Uzbek folk song to the wildly inventive 1974 song Sound Chaser by the progressive art-rock group Yes, which has become a Prutsman specialty. In the first half the Bach pieces were juxtaposed with Rameau, Beethoven, Wagner . . . , Debussy, and Schoenberg. But in the second half Mr. Prutsman drew even bolder connections, . . . with music by Charlie Parker (Ornithology), the gospel singer and pastor Walter Hawkins, a traditional Rwandan ode and more, all played in his own artful arrangements. . . . [T] he musical connections Mr. Prutsman made were so intriguing, and his playing so earnest and sensitive, that you never doubted the integrity of this musical adventure. . . . That Mr. Prutsman brought a similar approach to everything he played made the musical connections easier to hear. He played throughout with rhythmic freedom, warm colorings and jazzy spontaneity. I prefer Bach (and Schoenberg, for that matter) with more articulate rhythm and clarity. Still, Mr. Prutsman’s performances were honest and elegant. . . . The highlight for me was Mr. Prutsman’s slightly crazed and brilliant arrangement of the episodic, relentless Yes song. He did not speak to the audience about the program. . . . Instead he let the music do the talking. The audience listened with notably rapt attention, then gave Mr. Prutsman a standing ovation. There was no encore. To add anything would have thrown off the balance of Bach and Forth" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 12/6/10].

December 7

For a composer generally described as contemporary classical, Minimalist or avant-garde, Mikel Rouse has recently been getting almost folky. His 2009 album, Gravity Radio, and two he has just released, Recess and Corner Loading, Vol. 1 (all on Exit Music), are collections of verse-and-chorus songs featuring his voice and guitar picking: songs about the state of America, love, aging and uncertainty. Within the songs and connecting them are the patterns and metrical structures Mr. Rouse has always enjoyed. Around them, onstage, were video projections and current news readings when Gravity Radio was presented on Tuesday night at the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it continues through Saturday. Mr. Rouse was accompanied by a string quartet, two female singers and the sounds of shortwave radio static; he played a National steel resonator guitar or an acoustic guitar, singing in a rusty voice. 'When you think the worst is over/You know the worst has just begun,' one song counseled. Between every few songs, a woman read some of the day’s Associated Press reports -- tax legislation, Iran’s nuclear program, Wikileaks, Oprah Winfrey in Australia -- ostensibly to change the context for the songs. The video images were footage by Mr. Rouse that was often blurred or shown at disorienting angles; it presented landscapes, streetscapes and people, brightening or darkening with the volume of the music. The trappings gave a Laurie Anderson overlay to Gravity Radio, suitable for the performance-space circuit where Mr. Rouse has been touring with it. But they barely affected the songs, which didn’t need any theatrical help. Melding the sinewy stoicism of folk tradition with Mr. Rouse’s structural tweaks, they pondered disappointments and diminishing expectations, personal and political, reaching pensive conclusions in succinct choruses: 'The world got away with me,' concluded the last tune. With the steel guitar’s tinny bite, the music hinted at blues and old-time country, while the acoustic guitar moved it into folk-pop. But the string quartet and backup vocals added convolutions: harmonies leaning toward polytonality, staggered vocals that gently concealed the beat. Meanwhile, Mr. Rouse was toying with the rhythms, using odd meters that made the music skip and spring ahead so that it was never quite as cozy as the arrangements might seem. If Mr. Rouse had built his career in a different era, he might be playing these songs to indie-rock fans alongside bands like Dirty Projectors or an earlier Sufjan Stevens. But maybe it’s for the best -- the classical rubric makes for quieter audiences [Jon Pareles, The New York Times, 12/8/10].

Rufus Wainwright. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Wearing a black floor-length gown with a matching fur collar and dark eye makeup, he was every inch the tragic diva as he gravely crossed the stage . . . . A prima donna and a sad clown rolled into one, this grand, androgynous mourner embodied the grieving central figure of Mr. Wainwright’s sixth studio album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, released last spring. A cycle of 12 songs that includes his adaptation of Shakespeare sonnets 43, 20, and 10 -- All Days Are Nights is an outpouring of raw self-pity: a kind of musical crying jag, if you will. The Lulu of the title, Mr. Wainwright has said in interviews, refers to the silent-film flapper Louise Brooks, the Alban Berg opera Lulu, and the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. . . . [S]he is the embodiment of Mr. Wainwright’s alter ago, a haughty, high-strung opera star who feels entitled to vent any and every emotion with a feverish intensity. Prima Donna is the title of his first opera, which had its debut in England last year, and which he announced would open at the New York City Opera in 2012. The first half of the evening was an uninterrupted performance of the song cycle illustrated with clips of a long-lashed eye (presumably Mr. Wainwright’s) ringed in black makeup, slowly opening and closing, the area of shadow suggesting a thumbprint. Its music is an ultraromantic pop pastiche of French impressionist composers, from Debussy to Fauré, and consists largely of flowery, continuously modulating arpeggios attached to wandering melodies. Mr. Wainwright sought to sustain an orchestral texture as thick as the piano could produce. Except for the sonnets, the lyrics are a torrent of angst, much of it abstract, that coalesces to some degree around the death in January of Mr. Wainwright’s mother, the great folk singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle. Two songs address his close relationship with his sister, Martha Wainwright, to whom the album is dedicated, and who appeared after intermission to sing some harmony vocals. Mr. Wainwright’s heavily chromatic music lacks the harmonic refinement and dynamic subtlety of his French role models, but his theatrical presentation strove to make up the difference. His singing, as ever, went in and out of focus. His most problematic vocal area is a middle register that can sound like a coarse, grainy whine when pushed too hard, and a vibrato that wavers uncertainly when he sings softly. If Mr. Wainwright is not careful, he swallows syllables, and the words become unintelligible. His lower register is unexpectedly resonant, and his falsetto sweetly poignant. Increasingly, Mr. Wainwright draws out notes for expressive effect. Generally speaking, his voice leads and the piano follows. Although Mr. Wainwright has one of the most ardent fan bases of any singer-songwriter, the audience response to All Days Are Nights was politely respectful. . . . Stephen Oremus, the musical director for [Wainwright's] 2006 re-creation of Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall performance, accompanied . . . on piano as [Wainwright] reprised some of those songs, most successfully Do It Again and The Trolley Song. But the evening’s strongest numbers, in which Mr. Wainwright vigorously accompanied himself, were his own pop songs, the best of which reveal him as a melodic master. . . . Performing them with a robust confidence, Mr. Wainwright was at the top of his game" [Stephen Holden, The New York Times, 12/7/10].

December 8

Lee Hoiby’s Summer and Smoke (Lanford Wilson, after Tennessee Williams). Manhattan School of Music, New York, NY. "[When the work] had its premiere in 1971, it was criticized by some for its conservative music, awash in the harmonic language of Menotti (Mr. Hoiby’s mentor), Barber and Mahler, and its unabashedly lyrical vocal writing. But the work, with an effective and delicately poetic libretto by the playwright Lanford Wilson, also won deserved praise for doing what an opera is supposed to do: telling the story with sure dramatic pacing and understated expressivity, in music admirable for its directness and melodic grace. These qualities shone through on . . . [in] the first of three performances, with Mr. Hoiby, 84, in attendance. The conductor Steven Osgood drew supple, beautifully restrained playing from the able musicians. Set in 1911 in Glorious Hill, a small Mississippi town, the story unfolds during several momentous months in the lives of two young adults who grew up as neighbors: John Buchanan Jr., a dashing doctor, and Alma Winemiller, the sweet but inhibited daughter of a pious minister. The handsome production, directed by Dona D. Vaughn, using windows and sets that descend into place, imaginatively evoked the neighboring houses: the staid sitting room in the rectory where the Winemillers live and the doctor’s office where young John Buchanan practices with his father. The opera has long been embraced as ideal for student singers, and this excellent cast fit comfortably into its roles. Anna Viemeister, a soprano, sang with warmth and intensity, capturing the uneasy mix of yearning and repression in Alma. Though part of Alma has always loved John, she is intimidated by his breezy confidence, physicality and ease with women. Nickoli Strommer, a baritone, brought a mellow voice and crisp diction to John, the pride of Glorious Hill. John has nursed similar feelings for Alma, whose name in Spanish means 'soul.' But he goes too far one night when he takes Alma to the local casino, drinks too much and tries to rustle her to an upstairs room. Nothing would have happened, he explains months later in the crucial scene of the opera, because 'I’m more afraid of your soul than you are of my body.' In a way, the two young people cross emotional paths. Just as Alma, despairing of her loneliness, finds the courage to open herself to John, he worries that he has been spiraling into reckless behavior with women and drink, and decides to marry the young, nubile Nellie (Audean Farmer, a perky soprano), fresh from a finishing school for ladies. In a devastating final scene, Alma, sitting by a fountain in the park where she and John used to play, goes off dancing at the casino with a lonely traveling salesman, a short but crucial role sung by Brian Wahlstrom. Alma’s parents were winningly portrayed by the baritone Robert E. Mellon as the Rev. Winemiller, and the soprano Claire Coolen as his wife, a hostile, childish and unstable woman whom the townspeople describe as 'eccentric.' María Leticia Hernández as the sensual young Rosa, whom young John almost marries, and Chris Lucier as Roger, Alma’s decent childhood friend, were other standouts" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 12/9/10].

December 9

Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Denk. 92nd Street Y, New York, NY. "[B]ringing to light unfamiliar and worthy works by second-tier Romantics as well as contemporary composers seems to give Mr. Isserlis special delight. That his interests can draw sizable numbers of palpably engaged listeners is a credit to his estimable skills, enlightened advocacy and communicative powers. . . . Isserlis also had a noteworthy partner in Jeremy Denk, a pianist whose broad tastes and personable virtuosity make him a kindred spirit. . . . [Gabriel] Fauré’s Cello Sonata No. 2 . . . closed [the first half of the program]. . . . Denk played three of Gyorgy Ligeti’s études, offering precisely the mix of extravagant technique and potent imagination these dazzling works demand. . . . [in] the jazzily careening Fanfares, the achingly poignant Arc-en-Ciel and the obsessively rumbling Automne à Varsovie. . . . Isserlis . . . [played] four unaccompanied selections from Gyorgy Kurtag’s Signs, Games, and Messages. Each was an economical miracle of portraiture, with the sparest of means yielding characterful results. Banking on his listeners’ trust Mr. Isserlis earned their approval with his precise, heartfelt performances. He elegantly assumed vocal lines in his own arrangement of Ravel’s Deux Mélodies Hébraïques -- the incantatory Kaddisch and the quizzical Énigme Éternelle -- with gracious support from Mr. Denk. . . . An arrestingly inventive four-part evocation of natural and urban vistas, [Lieux Retrouvés, written for him by the English composer Thomas Adès], is full to bursting with raucous, scintillating and zany effects. Mr. Denk joined Mr. Isserlis in a persuasive account, warmly received by the audience" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 12/12/10].

December 11

Rammstein. Madison Square Garden, New York, NY. "Go for the fireballs, stay for the self-mythologizing and angst: That could be the pitch for Rammstein, the German rock band that played its first American show since 2001 . . . at a sold-out Madison Square Garden. During the concert flames shot up from the stage, down from the rafters and sideways from flamethrowers mounted in microphones and on a set of angel wings; fireworks added explosions and showers of sparks. At one point a man ran around the stage in a flaming suit, with an E.M.T. on hand to snuff him out. It was the kind of spectacle that has made Rammstein an arena and festival headliner across Europe. Its members are not modest. 'Lend your ears to a legend,' announced Rammlied, their first song, followed by a guttural shout that the crowd shared: 'Rammstein!' The music shows Rammstein’s origins in the mid-1990s, when bands like KMFDM, from Germany, and Ministry and Nine Inch Nails from the United States had already bonded hard-rock guitars and dance-music synthesizers. The songs run about 60 percent rock, 40 percent electronic, slamming away and pausing occasionally for half-speed interludes of brooding pomp. Rammstein’s lead singer, Till Lindemann, is a bass-baritone who makes his every utterance -- sung, barked, spoken -- portentous enough to match his stage presence; stocky and all muscle, he could be one of Wagner’s Nibelungen. In Rammstein’s early years its songs worked the easy shock effects that were common in industrial rock, singing about impulses of sex, violence and destruction. Rammstein’s international breakthrough song from 1997 -- and a major singalong at Madison Square Garden — was Du Hast (You Have, also a play on 'Du Hasst,' 'You Hate'), a bitter rejection of marriage vows. Rammstein stays grimly foreboding in songs from its most recent album, Liebe Ist für Alle Da (Love Is There for All) (Universal). There were dolls hanging overhead as the band performed Wiener Blut (Viennese Blood), which brings a woman into a castle basement for an ominous tryst: 'Welcome to the darkness,' Mr. Lindemann intoned, as the band started a churning, thrashing guitar attack. But Rammstein doesn’t present itself as a band of simple, cartoonish bad guys. There’s a troubled self-consciousness in songs like Waidmanns Heil (Happy Hunting), which opens with hunting-horn calls and confesses to a creepy bloodlust, and in Benzin (Gasoline), a stomper about fossil-fuel addiction. Amid the visual and musical blasts, Rammstein doesn’t exult in human depravity; it worries. During Engel (Angel), between streaks of flame from his wings, Mr. Lindemann was singing, 'We are afraid and alone' [Jon Pareles, The New York Times, 12/12/10].

December 15

Yukio Tanaka, biwa, and Kifu Mitsuhashi, shakuhachi, in Takemitsu’s November Steps with the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY.

December 16

JapanNYC: Winds and Strings of Change. Miller Theater, Columbia University, New York, NY." [A]n optimist would have taken heart that a receptive audience assembled for an event meant to honor the composer Toru Takemitsu, a pioneer in bridging Japanese and Western art-music cultures, and to promote Columbia’s recently established Gagaku-Hogaku Classical Japanese Music Curriculum and Performance Program. . . . Yukio Tanaka on biwa . . . and Kifu Mitsuhashi on shakuhachi, I was informed by a New York-based Japanese pianist in the audience, are viewed as national treasures in Japan. Joined here by the Japanese koto player Yoko Nishi and the New York shakuhachi player James Nyoraku Schlefer, they gave masterly performances. Mr. Tanaka punctuated solemnly sung verses with the biwa’s twang, rasp and bite in Dan no Ura, a 1964 song by Kinshi Tsuruta and Yoko Mizuki named for a cataclysmic 12th-century sea battle. . . . Minimalist-style arpeggios animated Tadao Sawai’s Gaku (Bliss), played by Ms. Nishi. Chikurai Gosho (Bamboo Soundings in Five Movements), an evocative, fiercely difficult work by Makoto Moroi, required of Mr. Mitsuhashi broad leaps in register, biting attacks and articulation shifts in midphrase, even midnote. Performing his own Yukyu no Shirabe (Meditation on Eternity), Mr. Tanaka sang a brief verse inspired by Tsunemasa, a 12th-century warrior and biwa player who perished at Dan no Ura, against a litany of desiccated rattles and sitarlike hums. Joined by Mr. Mitsuhashi, Mr. Tanaka ended the concert with Takemitsu’s November Steps, Number Ten, a cadenza from the orchestral work repurposed as a showcase of roiling, abrasive brilliance" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 12/17/10].

December 17

Simon Rattle conducts Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, in a revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1995 production. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY. "At the end of this four-hour evening, some of the most ardent participants in the ovation for Mr. Rattle were the musicians in the orchestra pit, who stood and heartily applauded. In perhaps the most impressive performance I have heard Mr. Rattle give, he drew lush and plangent yet clear-textured and purposeful playing from the great Met orchestra. . . . Debussy’s mysterious opera, first performed in Paris in 1902, is an elusive and unconventional music drama. Adapted from the Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck about the troubled family of an aged king in an imaginary realm, Pelléas et Mélisande is a masterpiece of ambiguity. Some conductors bring out the Wagnerian harmonic textures and dark orchestral colorings of the work. When called for, there was Wagnerian richness and impressionist fluidity in Mr. Rattle’s performance. Yet, in the manner of Pierre Boulez, an acclaimed exponent of this work, Mr. Rattle kept the textures lucid and focused, even when Debussy’s chords were thick with notes. Debussy tucked some piercing dissonances inside these milky harmonies, and Mr. Rattle brought them out through the pinpoint accuracy he elicited from the inspired Met players. For all his intelligence, though, Mr. Rattle is an intensely dramatic musician. I have never heard a Pelléas in which the extremes of the score came through so vividly. You could sense the simmering below the deceptively subdued surface. In the first scene the melancholic middle-aged Prince Golaud, who is lost in a forest, chances upon Mélisande, a weeping young woman full of fears and secrets. Mr. Rattle conducted the parallel orchestra chords that open the opera and the modal themes that slowly unfold with haunting serenity at a daringly slow tempo. In an impulsive act that is neither depicted nor explained, Mélisande marries the older Golaud. Yet, from the time they meet, Pelléas and Mélisande are drawn to each other, a sensual current that runs through this restless score. In Act IV, when they can no longer constrain their illicit attraction and confess their love, Mr. Rattle brought out all of the music’s teeming intensity and fitful shifts. Mélisande is a good role for the lovely [Magdalena] Kozena. The tenderness of her singing could not disguise the inner emotional chaos of this strange young woman: a victim, yes, but also a compulsive liar who remains an enigma to the end. [Stephane] Degout brought a warm, youthful voice and stylistic insight to Pelléas, conveying the character’s tragic path from the uptight younger half-brother of an imperious prince to a hopeless romantic with uncontrollable longing for his brother’s wife. [Gerald] Finley, who triumphed at the Met in the title role of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, was superb as Golaud. While not overpowering, his voice is dark, virile and generous. He is that rare operatic artist who even when singing lyrically, sounds like he is speaking with the directness of a great actor" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 12/19/10].

December 18

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem performed by the Saito Kinen Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Here he led the whole 85-minute War Requiem, including the segments incorporating Wilfred Owen’s poetry and scored for chamber orchestra, typically handled by a second conductor. He worked seated much of the time, looking less vigorous than he had earlier in the week despite his obvious frailty, and an intermission was added to help conserve his energy. 'I personally do not care for political pieces,' Mr. Ozawa wrote in program notes, but he was introduced to the War Requiem by a Rostropovich performance in 1979, and he has obviously internalized the work. He conducted from memory, as usual, with complete command and a loving attention to detail and nuance. His current affection for the piece stems in part from its role in his physical recovery, he said in an interview in September. Having led most of the same forces in the work at the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto in 2009, he set about restudying it. 'I had so much time, and I couldn’t do anything else, and music became more and more important,' he said. 'Maybe the piece was a little too heavy, but I felt so happy to study and have time.' The international representation was assured by the very nature of the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which mingles Japanese and Japanese-American performers (especially the string players) with Westerners. The Japanese choruses -- the SKF Matsumoto Choir and Children’s Choir and the Ritsuyukai Choir -- performed superbly, with powerful fortissimos and breathtaking pianissimos, and they articulated the Latin texts admirably. The vocal soloists -- Christine Goerke, a penetrating soprano who sometimes shaded flat; Anthony Dean Griffey, a touchingly communicative tenor; and Matthias Goerne, initially remote but ultimately a hauntingly involved baritone -- were strong and well matched. And the orchestra shone again, with those remarkable strings upholding their lofty standard and the brasses -- after a few early hitches -- improving on their previous performances, in blazing climaxes. With an obvious mix of exhaustion and exhilaration Mr. Ozawa generously shared the clamorous ovation from an audience that seemed to have taken in the work’s -- and the performance’s -- many messages" [James R. Oestreich, The New York Times, 12/19/10].

December 22

Spiral Music: Koto and oud recital by Yumi Kurosawa and Brandon Terzic. Rubin Museum of Art, New York, NY. "Kurosawa plays a 21-string koto, a modern version of the instrument developed in 1971 by Minoru Miki, rather than the traditional 13-string instrument. Except for Greening, a robust work by Mr. Miki, and Midare, a soft-spoken, pentatonic piece by the 17th-century composer Kengyo Yatsuhashi, the works Ms. Kurosawa played were her own. She is an inventive, seemingly cosmopolitan composer. Several of her pieces, including Green Point and One Girl’s Story, are built around melodies that vaguely evoke British and American folk songs, and a hint of Debussy wafted briefly through Takeda, a lullaby. In most of her pieces, Ms. Kurosawa presents her themes gracefully and then undertakes intricate, sometimes adventurous variations, drawing on a timbral palette that ranged from warm and rounded to bright and metallic. At times she seemed to push against the extremes of the instrument’s character. You don’t usually think of the koto as a particularly aggressive instrument, for example, but Ms. Kurosawa produced that quality in a passage that involved her scraping the finger plectrums on her right hand against the bass strings to create an abrasive din. Chromatic, harplike swirls, fluid chordal figures and alluring bent notes showed the koto’s more familiar character. In the duets Mr. Terzic began with a thoughtful, meditative oud theme, which Ms. Kurosawa picked up and varied expansively, leaving room for his responses and elaborations. Ms. Kurosawa also contributed a varied percussive underlay to these improvisations, sometimes creating a light-textured patter by tapping her plectrums against the side of the koto, sometimes providing a solid, steady beat by slapping her instrument’s underside. And though the koto and the oud do not sound similar on their own, Mr. Terzic and Ms. Kurosawa matched each other’s tone so closely that in the densest sections of their dialogues, you would not have known which instrument was playing a particular line if you were not watching" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 12/23/10].