Friday, February 13, 2009

A heavenly program from The Hilliard Ensemble

Yes...MORE great singing. Hilary Hahn's eagerly anticipated recital on Sunday is sold-out, and the waiting list for tickets continues to grow. But there's much more this weekend. The four male singers of The Hilliard Ensemble (which takes its name from the British miniaturist painter Nicholas Hilliard) are, simply put, extraordinary artists, and they're back with us tomorrow (Saturday, February 14th).

There's always much to learn and enjoy from The Hilliard Ensemble. Connoisseurs of vocal programming know that The Hilliards' programs are masterfully conceived. I'm most fond of the ones that juxtapose early and contemporary music, since the stylistic contrasts among the works, as experienced in performance, tend to heighten the expressiveness of the music synergistically, which in turn heightens my sense of discovery.

Thus when I saw their program Arkhangelos, which combines early chant and sacred music from several centuries of Christian tradition with works by excellent living composers such as James Macmillan, Arvo Paert, Ivan Moody and Jonathan Wild, I was intrigued. The highly informative program notes provided by The Hilliards are another valuable dimension their performances. These are intrepid music historians and researchers who enrich the repertoire by commissioning new works, consistently finding miraculous ways of interweaving the old with the new. There is a deeply satisfying meaning to their music-making that is altogether too rare.

So...we are promised a mystical musical journey with The Hilliards as our expert guides. Beyond appreciating the religious significance of the works and their texts, I also look forward to sitting back and basking in the glorious and gratifying sound they make (a hedonistc response to a sacred program that cannot be denied).

In retrospect, I suppose I could have requested an earthier or more romantic program for Valentine's Day -- but this is love of a transcendent sort....sustenance for the soul. Let love and chocolate abound, however. We'll have complimentary chocolates for everyone. Endorphins can boost the appreciation of music, surely one of life's greatest pleasures. (My colleagues at Spivey Hall are very familiar with one of my favorite mottos: "A little bit of chocolate goes a long way, and more goes farther.")

And of course, the acoustics of Spivey Hall provide an ideal showcase for the music they make. The Hilliard Ensemble deserves all the critical praise accorded them for their far-flung concert tours and first-rate recordings. If you're remotely inclined to come, don't hesitate, join us -- you will be glad you did.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Singers' Corner

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee sang superbly in his January Spivey Hall recital debut. He had a great night, as did we in the audience! Next up among our singers: this Saturday, February 7, Dutch mezzo Christianne Stotijn gives us jewels from the song literature, with an abundance of Brahms in the first half of her program, which ends with what is probably my favorite Brahms song, "Die Mainacht" (May Night). This song, like others in this program, invokes the singing of the nightingale, beloved of Romantic poets. It makes me wish I were a mezzo (in my next life, I want to come back as Erda). The closing measures of the song, for piano alone, is more proof of Brahms' musical genius. Ms. Stotijn is joined by distinguished pianist Joseph Breinl. The second half opens with six gorgeous songs by Grieg (Op. 48) set to German poetry, and closes with a selection of Tchaikovsky songs (a recording project for Ms. Stotijn), including "None But the Lonely Heart" and others whose soulful tunes will tug with sentiment and wistful melancholy at heartstrings in the true Russian fashion.

Christianne Stotijn would seem to be conductor Bernard Haitink's favorite Mahler mezzo at the moment (artistically, that says a great deal) -- and hearing her Brahms Alto Rhapsody in a freebie CD that arrived with one of the British music magazines in the fall, I can safely predict this will be one of those Spivey Hall recitals after which people tell me, "I didn't know her at all, but she's fabulous!" -- and those people who didn't attend, but heard about it later, will chastise me, "Why didn't you tell me she would be that good?!?"

There are still tickets for her Saturday recital, so don't hesitate...treat yourself. (Go hear Christine Brewer sing Strauss opera arias with Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony TONIGHT, so you can savor both! I'm heading out the door myself to Symphony Hall shortly....) Another Saturday singing pleasure will be the Met Opera's HD broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti. The incomparable Anna Netrebko sings Lucia, but -- this just in -- her tenor will NOT be Rolando Villazon, as planned -- he's ill and has pulled out, which of course saddens many...we at Spivey Hall (who have heard him sing resplendently in recital) can feel the disappointment acutely.

However, the tenor who WILL sing Edgardo amazed me at Marilyn Horne's 75th Birthday Celebration at Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago -- a Polish tenor by the name of Piotr Beczala, who sang Donizetti's "Una furtiva lagrima" from L'elisir d'amore, splendidly, with warm tone, excellent intonation, big round stylish expressive phrases, and a very attractive personality that reached across the footlights. Beczala is also singing Lensky in the Met's Eugene Onegin at the moment, and is slated for even bigger roles in future seasons. So, Met HD fans, I believe you're in for a real treat, if Mr. Beczala rises to the occasion -- and I expect he will.

The Horne birthday bash was a concert I'll remember for years to come. Such a line-up of incredible talent. There was a fairly comprehensive New York Times review, so I won't rehash everything, but suffice it to say that the singers who performed who also have given recitals at Spivey Hall -- Nicole Cabell, Isabel Leonard, Susan Graham, David Daniels, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Thomas Quasthoff, Karita Mattila, Thomas Hampson, Samuel Ramey, Frederica von Stade, and Joyce DiDonato -- were all magnificent, each in his or her uniquely personal way. The pianists -- Carrie-Ann Matheson, Martin Katz, Brian Zeger, and Warren Jones (all Spivey Hall artists except, I think, for Carrie-Ann, but I hope that won't be for long) -- brought their invaluable support and inspiring musicianship to this party as well, yielding consistently gratifying results.

There were so many highlights to these memorable performances. Each of these superb artists is deservedly celebrated and commands huge respect. Still, there were some especially notable moments. Martin Katz, in addition to collaborating with so many of these stars, also joined composer William Bolcom for four-hand piano accompaniment of "A Song of Praise" which Bill wrote for Marilyn (musically very clever, and good fun); plus, as a special tribute to a song near and dear to the honoree, he played a solo rendition of Stephen Foster's "I Dream of Jeannie," which was truly touching. Hvorostovsky was his elegant, charismatic self; Mattila projected her aura of incredible artistry; Graham sounded fantastic, luxuriating in her French aria, and was utterly delightful; Quasthoff never fails to amaze me for his humanity and spirit as a singer and a human being; Daniels radiated irresistibly stylish coloratura and virile charm; Hampson confirmed his ability to summon the spirit of Mahler like few singers can, with Warren Jones extracting all possible expression from the piano in a truly profound interpretation (playing all selections from memory); and DiDonato joyously nailed "Tanti affetti" from Rossini's La donna del lago, which took pride of place to close the program ingeniously devised by Marty Katz and Matthew Epstein, both close personal friends and professional colleagues of Marilyn Horne.

Having Marilyn Horne in the house, these singers put their best foot forward to honor a living legend who knows a thing or two (or two million) about great singing. It brought out the best from everyone, which was exhilarating. There was a lot of love coming from the stage, in addition to exceptionally beautiful music-making.

One of the great pleasures of my life was working two summers in California with Marilyn Horne at the Music Academy of the West. Jackie, as she is lovingly known by her family, colleagues, and the untold number of young singers she continues to mentor, support and develop through the Marilyn Horne Foundation (dedicated to sustaining the art of song), is truly one of my idols. The consummate professional, the supreme artist, the inspiring teacher, the dedicated mentor, she also has one of the biggest and most giving hearts of anyone I've had the privilege to know, combined with a robust sense of humor and phenomenal strength of spirit. As you can imagine, when she finally took the stage of Carnegie Hall, the audience roared with love and praise. She gave (as the Times reported) "motherly hugs" to all the celebrated artists gathered to honor her. She reminds me why I love music, why I love the music business, why music matters, and what incredibly precious gifts musicians make to enrich our lives. Happy 75th, Jackie, and many, many more. I'm among your millions of fans around the world who revere you, thank you, and wish you only the best.

Monday, February 02, 2009

A plethora of great pianists

We had no concerts this past weekend (a rare occurence during the regular season), but Spivey Hall's valiant and dedicated piano technicians, Craig Miller and Chuck Cook, were giving our two Steinways, Emilie and Walter, lots of special care and attention in anticipation of recitals by pianists Radu Lupu, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Yevgeny Sudbin in the next five weeks. Later in March, Murray Perahia gives the 2009 Spivey Memorial Concert and a piano master class; and in May, capping off the Spivey Hall 2009 Spring Bach Festival, Angela Hewitt will appear in duo recital and present a master class focusing on interpreting Bach at the piano. (More on these last two artists, plus pianist Jenny Lin, in a future post.)

These outstanding artists will perform some of the most magnificent works of the solo piano repertoire. Among the three Beethoven sonatas he's chosen for his recital this Friday, February 6, Radu Lupu will perform the dramatic "Pathetique" Sonata; after intermission, he will guide us into the other-worldly beauties of Schubert's last piano sonata, the B-flat Sonata, D.960. Mr. Lupu is renowned for his affinity with Schubert's works, and his Decca recording of this sonata won him a Grammy Award. He collaborates with the most distinguisihed orchestras and conductors internationally, and his recitals are always major musical events.

We are honored to be welcoming him back. "No pianist gets a lovelier tone out of the instrument. It glows from within," praises The New Yorker. I first met Mr. Lupu some 15 years ago when he performed a Mozart piano concerto with David Zinman and the Minnesota Orchestra. I've since heard him perform in Chicago, Amsterdam, New York and other cities. His understanding of his chosen repertoire seems to grow ever richer and more profound. I fully expect to be enthalled by hearing him reveal aspects of these familiar sonatas that I've never heard before. Such is the eloquence of great music intepreted by a truly distinguished artist.

Another internationally celebrated pianist and Decca recording artist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet is very well known to Atlanta, having performed many times with the Atlanta Symphony. He makes his Spivey Hall debut (at last!) on Saturday, February 21. A versatile artist who performs works by Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and Rachamaninov but also George Gershwin, Aram Khachaturian, Duke Ellington, virtuosic transcriptions of opera arias, and new works by contemporary composers such as Iranian-born Behzad Ranjbaran, he has also participated in creating music for films, including the Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning film, Atonement.

Mr. Thibaudet has consistently won superlatives for his interpretations of the music of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, whose immensely colorful and imaginative works are pillars of the solo piano repertoire. His program offers a feast of them. Book II of Debussy's Preludes, which explore wonderfully subtle and varied characters ending with the spectacular"Feux d'artifice" ("Fireworks"), comprises the first half of the program, followed by Ravel's wistfully exquisite Pavane for a Dead Princess, and culminating with Miroirs ("Mirrors"), including the popular "Alborada del gracioso" ("The Jester's Dawn Song"). If you've never heard this music before, you would want Jean-Yves Thibaudet to introduce you to it, for you are unlikely to hear more vivid, beautiful, insightful or persuasive performances of these Impressionist masterworks.

We're grateful to long-time subscribers, donors, and avid concert-goers Jeff Adams and Susan Hunter for being The Friends of Spivey Hall Concert Sponsors of this auspicious debut, and sincerely appreciate the assistance and collaboration of the French Consulate General in Atlanta in helping us welcome Mr. Thibaudet to Spivey Hall. A reception in his honor for the entire audience will follow the recital.

New to Atlanta and Spivey Hall is the brilliant young pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, who makes his debut on Sunday, March 8. Ten days ago, he gave a solo recital at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Anne Midgette, writing for The Washington Post, started her review with the following words:

With the insouciance born of ability and success, Yevgeny Sudbin, looking not unlike a young Rahm Emanuel -- dark-ringed eyes in a thin and handsome face -- sat at the piano at the Terrace Theater on Saturday afternoon and produced some formidable music.
The sound he made was thick and dark and rich: Russian-school virtuosity, but without cloying heaviness. In the first movement of Haydn's Sonata in B Minor, which opened the program, it also had a springy elasticity that conveyed the spirit of the music, as if the sound were informed by the lighter twang of Haydn's fortepiano, like a shadow on the wall behind him.
The Russian-born Sudbin, 28, projects a wunderkind persona: able to fling out technical fireworks, offer insightful and intimate Scarlatti, write articulate program notes that give an insight into what he thinks about what he is playing (something too often absent from the classical-music equation). He has been garnering critical raves, particularly in England, where he now lives; and his string of recordings on the Bis label (Scarlatti, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff) have picked up a slew of accolades and awards.

We, too, shall hear him perform a Haydn sonata (in E minor), preceded by two Domenico Scarlatti sonatas, followed by Chopin Mazurkas, two Fairy Tales by Nikolai Medtner, and to close the program, Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7, subtitled "War Sonata No. 2: Stalingrad" -- an emotional powerhouse that combines massive sonorities and incisive brilliance with delicacy and quicksilver changes of mood. As such, it's an excellent vehicle for Mr. Sudbin's impressive virtuosity.

Mr. Sudbin has been an especially popular guest artist at the BBC Proms in London. I first came to know his music-making through his CDs of Russian music; however, he's also in the process of recording all the Beethoven piano concertos. I'm proud to introduce him to Atlanta, and eagerly await the experience of hearing him in person.