Posts Tagged ‘Russian music’

Apollo’s Girl

January 26, 2017



NYFOS: It Doesn’t Get Any More Russian Than This…

If you walk through Red Square you can see Lenin, a triumph of chemistry, still lying in his tomb, or celebrate the riot of Byzantine colors and shapes that is St. Basil’s Cathedral, or pick up something new and expensive at one of GUM’s 1,200 shops. But if you want to see something so Russian it will break your heart and make you weep, walk to the Moscow Conservatory, where ghosts of aristocrats hover still. In front of its iron fence, Tchaikovsky’s statue sits on his pedestal, surrounded by trees and the scent of lilacs in the summer. This is romance, as only the Russians can do it. tschaikovsky

Unless you were at Merkin Hall this week to give yourself up to NYFOS doing Pyotr the Great: The Songs of Tchaikovsky and His Circle. It was romance and total immersion as only Steve Blier can conjure it, with two pianos (his and Michael Barrett’s), a couple of singers destined for great things, program notes worth keeping forever and Blier’s bleier-and-barrettintroductions to the songs, mashups of erudition and sly wit.

Like all of NYFOS’ programs, Pyotr the Great has been put together not just by erudition and wit, but by passionate love for the music itself and insatiable curiosity about the composer’s life, times and genius. There were insights into his training (he was a lawyer), his ability to express the Russian spirit and soul in music and, of course, a modern understanding of his very complex personal life. The songs are supercharged by the extent of Tchaikovsky’s feelings and his need to keep them in the shadows.

If you find yourself content to luxuriate in the composer’s familiar symphonies, ballets and operas, you would be missing the glories of his chamber music and especially his songs. Quite simply, they are ravishing, with a richness, subtlety and emotional contours entirely equal to Tchaikovsky’s agenda. The program was divided into sections: Tchaikovsky’s Family; Men; Colleagues; Women and Last Days. The texts were the work of several poets, with Tolstoy leading the pack and Pushkin included for Onegin’s Act I aria. But, for all of the pleasures in the chosen 17 (plus two encores), the standout (and my lifelong favorite) was and will always be the penetratingly bittersweet setting of Tolstoy’s At the Ball. Surely this tiny masterpiece captures everything that words and music can express. If you don’t know it, try YouTube and carry it with you the next time you need a Swan Lake or Eugene Onegin fix. It will work!


As for the singers (soprano Antonina Chehovska and baritone Alexey Lavrov): though neither is, literally, Russian, they are from nearby territories and fluent in the language and traditions that enveloped the evening. Chehovska has a big range, a beautiful voice, power to spare and modesty in the bargain. Lavrov is equally gifted (and as someone who has already sung the title role in Eugene Onegin, perhaps a tad less modest). They sang their solos without holding back, and their duets were deeply satisfying. As multiple prize-winners, they have much to look forward to (or, as the man sitting next to me kept saying, “Those two are going to have huge careers!”) Apart from my neighbor, confirmation came from Blier himself; when Barrett was playing the accompaniments, Blier simply leaned back in his chair listening, eyes closed, wearing a very, very big smile.

Like so many of NYFOS’ recitals, there was a strong concept framed by the musical generosity that has defined their work for 29 years. And that generosity has just been extended to an intricate and captivating web site and blog (No Song is Safe From Us)http://blo There are Blier’s fabulous program notes. There’s a TV channel, too. Go. Read. Listen (you will find excerpts from Pyotr the Great, along with local and nearby concerts coming up). You’ll be in very, very good hands, and right in the middle of the action.

Cooper’s London

June 17, 2015




The Queen of Chairs, in Spades

This is musically an important event for queen of spades 2the English National Opera and the musical side is superb. You will rarely hear a better sung and conducted version of this tense and tragic Tschaikovsky masterpiece than the ENO’s new production. English tenor Peter Hoare is making his debut as Hermann at relatively short notice and his singing and acting turn out to be heroic; committed, gorgeous to listen to, totally convincing. He understands Hermans’s torment and obsessions and how the music conveys them and he’s spot on portraying Hermann’s slow descent into madness and psychosis. Giselle Allen as Lisa is wonderful to listen to as well; with her shining voice and complete understanding of the score, she touchingly conveys Lisa’s troubled innocence. Dame Felicity Palmer, now in her seventies, is a dominant and powerful Countess; Nicholas Pallesen makes a striking, attractive and powerfully sung Prince Yeletsky.

The entire cast is musically strong, including the edward gardenerchorus; and Edward Gardner clearly understands the score, its drama, the sonorities and harmonies; he masters the forces throughout, giving one of the most powerful performances of this dark work that I’ve ever heard. Clearly he “gets” both the Tschaikovsky brothers’ collaboration on score and libretto as surely as he knows Pushkin’s original story. A pity it’s his farewell as the ENO’s Music Director (though he returns as a guest conductor next year for Tristan and Isolde, already hugely anticipated.)

That said, there is more , however, that must be included: a hard look at David Alden’s disjointed production concept that, for me, seriously undermines the success of the evening. There is a strange disconnect between his expressionistic, surreal approach to storytelling and the actual words and music being sung and played. To put it simply, Alden doesn’t seem to be engaged with the work itself; rather he is simply using it as an opportunity to impose and express his own visual and symbolic obsessions. There are some very fine moments , but I put those down mainly to singers and conductor who actually are one with the music and words and who have a clear understanding of what they want to convey.

Not to belabor my point: I didn’t find updating the story to Communist Russia actually added a thing; if anything, it was a distraction, especially in the ball scene and the places where a Grand Opera approach to emotion is required. The individual, one-on-one relationships and the monologues worked because of the fine cast; but the robotic chorus was a tedious trope.

queen of spades 1I fear too that I am getting mighty tired of Alden’s chairs. Can anyone explain why he always has piles of chairs as part of his visual concept or his stage setting? People drag them across the stage while other people are trying to sing, thus distracting the audience from what should be the opera’s visual center, taking your eye to the wrong place at the wrong time; there’s no respite because they’re strewn everywhere. People climb them as if they were barricades (is this a not-too-subtle clue that there has been a Revolution?) and then chairs 2declaim from atop the pile. Or they fall over and tumble down the pile. The chairs are symbolic, they are usually Biedermeyer or Baroque; and occasionally, it has to be admitted, someone even sits on them. Since chairs have been featured in every production of Alden’s that I have seen since for about three decades, I am still trying to puzzle out the thread that joins them chairily from Handel through Verdi through Tchaikovsky and beyond. Like so many other objects on David Alden’s stages, they seem both arbitrary and predictable.

queen of spades 2Alden does, however, occasionally allow singers simply to present the key moments with some directness. Hermann’s stages of descent into craziness and Lisa’s obsessive-yet-touching passion for the anti-hero Hermann do get strongly conveyed, and Felicity Palmer gives us both the scariness and the fascinating personal charisma of the Countess. You can believe she was once a sexually alluring aristocratyou can believe her harsh and autocratic behaviour. Hers is a strong, pivotal performance; and the scene where Hermann invades her bedroom to get the secret of the cards from her is brilliant, with Hoare and Palmer creating a sensational artistic rapport.

But what keeps the evening compelling (if you can ignore the damned chairs) must be Gardner’s understanding of the work and his pacing of the score; both are exemplary. The hymn-like choral conclusion after Hermann’s death was haunting and powerful, as it needs to be to round off this story.

There is a postscript that should, aldensin the interests of even-handed journalism, be added here: Alden’s twin brother Christopher (also an opera director) works often in the United States; his Don Giovanni for the New York City Opera was updated to the 1930s (why?) and featured a cast made to drag chairs to and fro at random moments throughout the production. Though Wikipedia tells us that the twins were born in New York, to a “show-business family,” I’m willing to wager there’s a relative with a chair factory somewhere in that family tree.

The Queen of Spades is in repertoire at the Coliseum in London (along with Carmen and the Pirates of Penzance) until 2 July 2015.

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