Sunday, April 28, 2013

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

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I almost couldn't get tickets for this Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet concert... The tickets sell out frustratingly early. All the retirees in the area buying up season tickets months in advance!

It was amusing to see the only gal in the group (may or may not be the youngest?) holding the biggest stick (i.e. bassoon). Their program was refreshing, spring-like, and most of all whimsical. Only musicians of their caliber can pull this off! I had a lot of fun visualizing dramatic scenarios during the pieces...

W. A. Mozart (1756-1791), Fantasy in F Minor for a Mechanical Organ, KV 608 (Arr. by Michael Hasel): Mozart being the timeless classic he is, I had no salient mental imagery other than the abstract notion of spring and joy. This seemed to be their warm-up piece, as I felt they were tweaking some intonation along the way. I know this because once the air inside the instrument gets cold, it takes a few minutes to warm it up and get the pitches right again! Mmm wave physics.

Kalevi Aho (b.1949), Kvintetto (2006): Wild safaris with cave spelunking, scuba diving, jungle trekking, and desert traversing. Along the way, the travelers encountered a pair of elephants lumbering in heat, a mixed chorus of howler monkeys and macaws, a near-death experience of almost crashing into a cliff in a propeller plane, and an explosive symphony of color-shifting corals, tropical fishes, and octopi. The last movement starts with the flute, oboe, and clarinet playing offstage, and then they come back. And then the French and bassoon leave and play offstage until the end. Curious stage effect.

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962), Trois Piecès Brèves (1930): A lovely garden in the height of spring with serene fountains, butterflies dancing among the flowers, birds chirping amidst the arboreal foliage, and squirrels darting around the branches and tree trunks in their vibrant acrobatics.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), La cheminée du roi René (1939): Young Franciscan monks hiking in an ancient and pristine forest, seeking enlightenment. Magical spirits visit them every once in a while to commune with the monks and make fun of how little they know about the wisdom of the forest.

Jean Françaix (1912-1997), Quintet No. 1 (1948): The Marauders (may or may not include Lily Evans) pulling a Ferris Bueller by ditching their Hogwarts classes for a day, solemnly swearing they're up to no good. They must be constantly looking out for people who might recognize them, but that doesn't stop them from going to a bar and drinking a bit more than they can handle. James and Lily (or Sirius and Remus or some combination thereof) danced around in awkward and silly moves, before Remus reminds everyone they must head back pronto or they would really be in trouble. The next day, while passing time during a boring class hungover, they're planning their next adventure.

The quintet did an encore of a folk song medley that included "Oh Susana" and "Yankee Doodle" among other tunes I couldn't immediately recall :-P I wonder if they have an encore book of folk tune arrangements from every country they've performed in?

I wanted to ask them if any of them can circular breathe, but sneaking backstage seemed to be tricky. Too bad!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Visitations: Theotokia and The War Reporter

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One of my recent conversations discussed the following proposition: when attending an avant-garde opera, instead of dressing up in the usual evening formal attire, one could don the hipster gear of thick-rimmed glasses, hoodie, brightly-colored pants, converse sneakers, and mismatched socks. I'm really milking my grad student status for all it's worth.

As quoted from the concert program:
Visitations presents a pair of tender and powerful dramas about individuals haunted by inner voices. The first, Theotokia, takes the audience inside the consciousness of a man who, beset by hallucinatory voices, is taunted and seduced by the mother of God. The work illuminates the experience of Leon, a schizophrenic who is possessed by ritualistic and religious hallucinatory delusions and suffers from obsessive, ritualistic behavior.  
The second opera of the set, The War Reporter, depicts the true story of the inner struggle of Paul Watson, a war reporter who believes he is being haunted by the spirit of the desecrated American soldier he photographed in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 (a photograph that won Watson the Pulitzer Prize shortly thereafter). Although the libretto's narrative traverses six geographical locations, the actual drama is set entirely in the psyche of the reporter as he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. 
I was totally mesmerized by the juxtaposition of Gregorian chant (parallel fifths and octaves) with augmented/diminished fourth/fifths, major/minor seconds reminiscent of the soundtrack from North by Northwest and Inception. The St. Lawrence String Quartet really pulled out all the chords and shook them in pizzicatos. The texturing of various percussion instruments and the alto flute was particularly effective. Kudos to the composer and the entire "pit" orchestra! (There's no real pit on stage in this concert hall.)

The New York Polyphony gave a fantastic rendition of all the angst and nuances. The countertenor (who played Leon and one of Paul's inner voices) sang with the delicate tension of stretched pizza dough, constantly stringing my ears along with the anticipation of delicious harmonies and suspension chords. It was amazing how high his range can get! The baritone (as Paul) swept me away with all the power of crashing waves on a stormy shore. The soprano's singing (Theotokia: Mother Anne, Leon's mother, Yeti Mother; The War Reporter: Paul's boss, Paul's inner voice) soared like an albatross surfing in the mountain wind.

The set design once again evoked an abstract sense of unsettling, as per Rinde Eckert's signature in his works. The visualization in Theotokia reminded me of fertilized cells dividing...

... and ferrofluids morphing...

I also enjoyed how the vocalists took over the role of the stage crew, rearranging props while doing choreographed interpretive dance moves that illuminated plot elements. This aspect of the performance was implicit and understated, letting the audience make the conceptual leaps, a fresh contrast to the special effects overkill in contemporary cinema. :-P

At some point, I wondered about the anachronistic superstition that upon taking a shot, the camera would extract the subject's soul... or perhaps the photographer's?