Friday, March 31, 2017

French and French Canadian

The excellent French musicians of the QUATUOR EBENE  will perform at Spivey Hall tomorrow, April 1 at 7:30 PM (this is no April Fool's joke!), giving us Mozart's D-minor Quartet, K. 421 and Debussy's sublime, one-and-only Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. My love of string quartets was inspired by a visit the renowned Guarneri Quartet made to my high school in the late 1970s, where the town's community orchestra (in which I played the French horn) would rehearse and perform. The orchestra's music director was also director of our high school orchestra, and he organized a master class with the Guarneri musicians in which several of my friends performed. (I remember the Quartet's original cellist, the wonderful but often bluntly outspoken David Soyer, asking my cellist friend Martha, "Who on EARTH gave you that fingering?") For the community orchestra concert, the Guarneri split into pairs, performing the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante and the Brahms Double Concerto, concluding the program with Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet. This was my first encounter with a professional string quartet, and it was powerful. Playing in the Brahms Double, my passion for music took on a entirely new dimension, and led to my 34-year career of working with professional musicians at major orchestras and festivals, and to my 13 seasons at Spivey Hall.

In those days, there was no, no YouTube, no music download technology. So I got myself to a suburban mall's record store, and purchased the Guarneri's LP of the Ravel and Debussy quartets. (The cover showed the musicians in a more casual moment, cavorting barefoot in the sunshine, shirt-tails flying in the wind, along an ocean beach.)  I listened to it over and over and over again, and these two superb French quartets became embedded in my musical consciousness. This, and a recording (not by the Guarneri) of the Schubert C-major String Quintet with the legendary Pablo Casals as the extra cellist, are what led me to believe that chamber music was music I needed in my life -- music that matters. In hindsight, we owe so much to our teachers who create these opportunities for us when we're young -- they are experiences that can sustain and inspire us for a lifetime. So, to the teacher/conductor Donald Grosz who made this possible for me and many others, across the decades, thank you.

Just this morning I was interested to read in The New York Times thoughts offered by the Met Opera's incoming music director, French Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Segin, whom I first saw/heard at a Mostly Mozart Festival in New York some years ago. I've been a fan ever since. Alas, he doesn't take the Met position fully until 2020 (he is a busy guest conductor, as well as music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra), but he is definitely worth the wait, and thankfully will be appearing with the Met in the intervening years.

Before his first rehearsal with the Met Orchestra since his appointment, he made some important statements to the musicians, related in an interview. He is clearly a man of vision, a leader. I was particularly taken by this exchange (the emphasis in his reply is mine):

These are uncertain times. What will you do to make sure the Met can retain its quality?
With the world in general, there is division, fear, reflexes of being for ourselves instead of sharing. If you add this to the fast-paced, hectic life; high stress; less and less culture in schools, that is quite apocalyptic if you look through one lens.
But if you look through the other lens, I think that is why we will become even more special. Not special because “oh, we’re so special,” but special because it will be something so necessary, such a welcome contrast to everyday life. A way to reconvene and regroup together in a place where we feel we’re connected to our own history, connected to our emotions, connected to what it is to be a community together. Music in general has, I think, an even greater role in the years to come.
Amen. The statement of his belief in and dedication to "music that matters" parallels my own convictions, and is reflected in Spivey Hall's mission of cultivating a community of artists and audiences who share a passion for the discovery and appreciation of music through concert and education experiences.  We DO need great music in our lives, now more than ever, when so many other forces can act to isolate and dispirit us.

And so the Ebene musicians are giving us THEIR music that matters -- in addition to pieces we love by Mozart and Debussy (in which they excel, as their CDs amply demonstrate; to my ears, they have a special affinity for the musical language and inflections of the Debussy), music of their own making that combines influences of jazz and contemporary popular music, sometimes called "crossover." Forget the labels; it's just great music. During their prior (and first) visit to Spivey Hall, we had but a taste of it (as an encore), and it was exhilarating. Regardless of what genre of music they're performing, they're listening, responding with millisecond sensitivity (consciously, instinctively, emotionally) to musical ideas and how each other treats them and tosses them around, and in incredibly creative and personal ways, bringing the music alive in the moment. The vitality of their music-making is thus both exciting and deeply satisfying.  My thanks go to Friends Concert Sponsors Debra and Gregory Durden for their generosity in making this possible.

We are also thrilled that French Canadian pianist LOUIS LORTIE is back again this weekend, for his all-Chopin solo recital Sunday, April 2 at 3:00 PM.  He is a phenomenal musician, and his is an astounding program. It opens with a double-dozen of Chopin's Etudes, which technically are immensely challenging and virtuosic -- truly some of the most brilliant writing for the piano -- but also highly expressive and tremendously engaging when performed live as he does. Mr. Lortie has made a specialty of these Etudes in his career (in the course of which he is performing and recording all of Chopin's solo-piano works for Chandos), something that very few pianists do. He made his Spivey Hall debut with the complete Etudes (including the posthumous Etudes), and it was jaw-droppingly, mind-blowingly good. When he offered them again for the current concert season, I couldn't resist. He truly excels in this repertoire. I am particularly fond of the musicianship he brings to the last of the Op. 25 Etudes, in C-minor -- how he makes the inner-line melody sing expansively and lyrically over such a relentless torrent of cascading notes, all of which he makes sound effortless, organic and natural -- and I play his early Chandos recording of this Etude several times each year, when (often late at night) I'm feeling the urge to hear music I love -- music that matters to me.

And as if these two sets of Etudes weren't enough, he is also performing the complete Chopin Preludes, Op. 28, which feature in the lives of many piano students, and are beloved by pianophiles generally.  Some are very short, others more extended, but all are of an eloquent, unique character, distilling expression beautifully into pieces that (in the right hands) seem almost inevitable. With Liszt, Chopin radically expanded not only piano technique, but also the expressive and emotional range of the piano repertoire. More than 170 years later, Chopin's music still has the power to move and delight us.

Thus this is a recital not to be missed! I am grateful for the exceptional generosity of Friends Concert Sponsors Jeffrey M. Adams and Susan M. Hunter that enables us to welcome Louis Lortie back to Spivey Hall.

To anyone who would generally use I-85 to drive through Atlanta near the intersection of I-75 and GA 400 to reach Spivey Hall, this route obviously will NOT be possible this weekend -- and for some time to come, following yesterday's fire that caused the section of I-85 next to where it passes over Piedmont Avenue to collapse.

If traveling from the northeast of metro Atlanta, take I-285 to I-675 then exit at Forest Parkway. Or if you're closer to the center of Atlanta, you can take US 23/Briarcliff Rd, which south of Ponce de Leon Avenue becomes Moreland Avenue -- a straight shot south through Little Five Points to Clayton County, where you would turn right on Forest Parkway, then left at the top of the hill with the traffic light (follow the signs) to the Clayton State campus.

Google Maps correctly identifies Spivey Hall's location:  Beware: not all GPS devices do!  But in any case, do not be deterred from attending these concerts -- you will be glad you did!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

TONIGHT: Miah Persson and Malcolm Martineau

From Carnegie Hall to Spivey Hall...

Alas, Florian Boesch has had to withdraw, but Miah Persson and Malcolm Martineau have devised a truly wonderful recital program.

Good tickets still available for tonight -- Saturday, March 25 at 7:30 PM.  Pre-concert talk by Dr. Kurt-Alexander Zeller at 6:30 PM.

Here's what The New York Times had to say about their performance earlier in the week:
Miah Persson at Zankel Hall, with Malcolm Martineau on piano. CreditMichelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Her Vulnerable Gesture

With a simple gesture of her hands, complementing a crucial moment in the first song of Schumann’s beloved cycle “Frauenliebe und -leben,” the exquisite soprano Miah Persson showed how movement and music can blend powerfully in a song recital. A vulnerable young woman casts aside the “games of my sisters.” Instead, she will “weep silently” in her chamber, aching for a man she has just seen. Ms. Persson stretched out her arms and sang intently: She seemed to be saying, “Bring it on — desire, excitement, pain, the whole works.” ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Read our review of this concert.

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Going to Heaven!" at Spivey Hall on Saturday

Anyone who loves great singing wants to be in the good company of mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton, two excellent English musicians making their Spivey Hall debuts tomorrow night (Saturday, March 11) at 7:30 PM.

This afternoon I spent the best minutes of my day listening to them rehearse on stage in preparation for their recital program. Aaron Copland's song, "Going to Heaven!" from his Twelve Poems by Emily Dickinson, mercurial and melismatic, lingers in my head. And the expansive deep-bass sonority from the piano that closed another of these songs, "I've heard an organ talk sometimes," was something I physically felt as much as I heard. (Superb acoustics are the gift that keep on giving.)

It's a privilege to witness such gratifying music-making. Their program is a diverse one. It opens with songs by German Romantic composer, Robert Schumann, inspired by poet Adelbert von Chamisso, that explore the rising joys of a young woman as she falls in love, marries, and has a child -- then her utter despair when her husband dies. 

The program's first half closes with songs by Gustav Mahler set to poems by Friedrich Rückert, including a song extremely close to my heart, and among my ideals of deeply lyric, soulful, ethereal beauty, "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" ("I am lost to the world").  This is "Desert Island" music for me. Hearing it sung live can be a life-changing experience.

After intermission, a definite change of mood emerges through songs by Francis Poulenc set to five poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, Banalités, which by coincidence includes another of my favorite songs, "Hôtel" -- a delicious distillation of languorous idleness, highly evocative in nature, which concludes with a sigh: "I do not wish to work, I wish to smoke." Gorgeous. (Shout-out to my friend Sue D. in Florida -- I once again vow that I will, someday, make a video of this.)

Then six of the Emily Dickinson songs, including "The Chariot" ("Because I could not stop for death...he kindly stopped for me...), masterfully set by Copland. And then -- a entertaining finale, A History of the Thé Dansant.  You may recall the film, Four Weddings and a Funeral with Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell, among others; the composer of its soundtrack is Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012); his sister, Meg Peacock, wrote three poems similar in style those of Edith Sitwell, that evoke the spirit of the 1920s French Riviera. (Think also Downton Abbey, Season 4, when Anna chaperones Lady Rose to a the dasant in a somewhat happy drinking establishment, in which a jealous fight among the local boys seeking to dance with Rose ensues, and they escape just before the police arrive.)  The poems  -- "Foxtrot," "Slow Foxtrot" and "Tango" -- are clever, witty flights of free-association.  I expect Sarah Connolly with have great fun with them -- as will we.

And I suspect there will be encores, too. Thus MUCH to enjoy. Ms. Connolly is in marvelous voice -- her singing is finely nuanced, imbued with meaning both in sound and word, and richly expressive -- and she has a expert partner in Mr. Middleton at the piano, a highly sought-after collaborator by the world's leading singers. 

Accolades abound for both artists. Good seats are still available.  Don't hesitate! Don't miss another "Spivey moment"! DO prepare to be enchanted.

Bonus: Clayton State University music professor and tenor Dr. Kurt-Alexander gives a pre-concert talk at 6:30 PM, free to ticket holders. His insights invariably enhance my listening experience, as I expect they will yours.

COME...and you shall be rewarded.