Tag: piano

Sir George Benjamin Wows With the Berlin Philharmonic

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

Sir George Benjamin leads the Berlin Philharmonic at Musikfest Berlin 2018 (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

Attending the Berlin Musikfest is quickly becoming something of a habit. Since my first experience with the event last year, I’ve become captivated by its varied and very rich programming, which features local organizations (including the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester, the Konzerthaus Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester), plus a number of important chamber groups, vocal outfits, and an assortment of stellar visiting orchestras (including the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Boston Symphony Orchestra recently). What I love about Musikfest is that it is so unapologetically varied; there is no sense of needing to appeal to a so-called “mainstream” base, because the term simply doesn’t apply. Thus the programming is what one might term adventurous, exploratory, just plain smart — and features many modern and/or living composers, like the concert given by the Berlin Phil this past weekend, led by conductor/composer (and Composer in Residence for the 2018-2019 season) Sir George Benjamin. Saturday’s performance was a chewy, thoughtful presentation that examined notions of time, impermanence, and various states of perception. Like so much of the programming at Musikfest, the concert was a thought-provoking examination of how we experience music, in time and space, according to personal and historical perceptions, and how we live in, around, and outside of sound itself. 

The program opened with the work of composer/conductor Pierre Boulez. Though he passed away in early 2016, Boulez was easily one of the most influential artists in twentieth century music. His experimental, and frequently ground-breaking approach helped to shape so very many  composers and artists (Benjamin included) who followed. “Cummings ist der Dichter” (“Cummings is the poet”) is a 1970 work that imitates through sound what the poet ee cummings attempted to achieve in text.  As Anselm Cybinski’s fine program notes remind us, “(p)erception is broken up into multiple perspectives; the possibilities for reading and understanding increase.” While the work can be jagged, there is a majestic beauty at work, an undeniable forward momentum despite “its gestures seem(ing) discontinuous and spontaneous.” Benjamin thoughtfully emphasized these multiple perspectives through careful (indeed, loving) emphasis on the relationship between harps, strings, and voices (especially female) via ChorWerk Ruhr. Their melismatic vocalizing was hugely complemented by the tremulous bass work of Janne Saksala, which made for a gorgeous fluidity that nicely contrasted the many crunchy chords and dissonant jolts. Benjamin himself has a gentle approach that is simultaneously intuitive and narrative-driven, equal parts heart and head, perhaps reflecting his own operatic considerable (and rightly celebrated) history. This gentle force would shape and define the program overall, becoming especially discernible in the final work of the evening by Benjamin himself.

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

Cédric Tiberghien performs with the Berlin Philharmonic as part of Musikfest Berlin 2018 (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

Before then, the audience was treated to a ravishing performance of Ravel’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D major for the left hand, with French pianist Cédric Tiberghien. The piece, written between 1929 and 1930, was commissioned by concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had suffered grave injury in the First World War, losing his right arm as a result. The concerto is a fiercely virtuosic work which Ravel himself described as being in “only one movement” though its slow-fast-slow structure and allusions to various other works (some by the composer himself) make it far more thoughtful than its title might suggest. The opening, as sonically luxuriant as any from Ravel’s 1912 “symphonie chorégraphique” Daphnis et Chloé, featured beautiful bass and bassoon work, with Benjamin emphasizing sensuous tone and phrasing. The build to Tiberghien’s virtuosic entrance dripped with drama; Benjamin pulled a sparkling ebullience from the orchestra, with ringing strings and boisterous if well-modulated brass and woodwinds. A syncopated section featuring violas, cellos, and bassoons could so easily have been played cartoonishly (and in fact, frequently is), but the maestro avoided any easy sonic trappings, focusing on the probing heart beneath the plucky lines, with the piano as a blended and equal partner. 

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner PhilharmonikerGeorges Benjamin

Sir George Benjamin with Cédric Tiberghien (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

In this he and the orchestra were matched by Tiberghien’s energetic playing, his laser focus never obscuring or erasing his highly poetic approach. The young pianist seemed less concerned with showing off his (clear) virtuosic talent than with coaxing color, modulation, a refined texture (clarified to a remarkable degree in his encore, “Oiseaux tristes”, the second movement of Ravel’s piano cycle Miroirs). The clear sonic references contained within the Concerto to Ravel’s famous “Boléro” (premiere in 1928), as well as to Gershwin works (especially “Rhapsody in Blue”, premiered in 1924) were made clear enough without belaboring the obvious; Benjamin emphasized percussion (as he did throughout the evening), with an insistent pacing echoed by cellos and bass, making the sound more akin to a grinding war machine than flamenco or jazz, a clear reference to the history of the piece’s commissioner and first performer. 

The contemplative nature of the performance also underlined the temporal nature of the sound experience in and of itself, and how it might be altered with the use of only one limb; such contemplations around temporality, perception, and one’s direct experience of sound would emerge as a dominant theme of the evening, highlighted in Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds for 12-part female choir and orchestra, written in 1972-73, and a reference to a lecture given by Karl Popper in 1972 in which the Viennese philosopher juxtaposes (as Ligeti himself wrote) “exactly determined (“clocks”) versus global, statistically measurable (“clouds”) occurrences of nature. In my piece, however, the clocks and clouds are poetic images. The periodic, polyrhythmic sound-complexes melt into diffuse, liquid states and vice versa.”

Like much of the vocal writing done by Claude Vivier (whose traces here will be noticeable for fans of the Quebecois composer’s work) the twelve voices sing, according to the program notes, “in an imaginary language with a purely musical function.” And so spindly strings contrasted with the sheet-like vocals of ChorWerk Ruhr members, before roles reversed and chirping vocal lines were set against (and yet poetically with) steely-smooth strings.  Benjamin held the tension between the worlds of voice and instrument with operatic grace, creating and recreating a sort of narrative with every passing note fading in and out as naturally as breathing. Interloping woodwinds and clarinets brought to mind the image of an Impressionist painting being projected in a darkened planetarium, against a backdrop of slow-moving galaxies. This was immensely moving performance, at once as emotional as it was intellectual.

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker Georges Benjamin

Sir George Benjamin leads the Berlin Philharmonic at Musikfest Berlin (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

The audience was given a good chance to reset heart, mind, and ears between the Ligeti work and the final piece of the evening, Benjamin’s “Palimpsests”, written in 2002 and dedicated to Pierre Boulez (who also led its premiere). Another stage rearrangement (many were needed this evening) allowed for numerous basses at one side, a line of violinists at the front, and good numbers of brass, woodwinds, plus three percussionists directly in front of Benjamin. The set-up, compact but equally expansive, allowed Benjamin’s titular layers (and their related, possibility-ladden connotations) to come in waves around and outwards and around once again, with clear references to the works of both Boulez as well as Olivier Messiaen, Benjamin’s former teacher. Expressive violin lines here act as a quasi-choir; at Saturday’s performance, there was a small but lovely moment between Concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa and violinist Luiz Filipe Coelho, in an almost-dancing lyrical duet which brought to mind Benjamin’s own edict that he wanted the piece to be “anti-romantic and yet passionate.”

Despite the sheer muscularity of sound particular to the Berlin Philharmonic violin section, Benjamin carefully controlled and shaped for maximum dramatic (and vocal) effect, placing just as much care on their twisting lines with harp, a highly cinematic and charged series of moments which recalled the sounds of film composer Bernard Herrmann. Impressively angry horn sounds were the loudest volume heard all night, complementing a stellar percussion section, whom Benjamin made sure to recognize during bows at the close. The gentle force which had opened the program now closed it, with thoughtful grace and a heartfelt elegance. In a current interview in New Yorker magazine, Benjamin says of his childhood that “I loved playing the piano, but it was the orchestra I went to see […] I loved the variety of instruments, the energy, and the source of drama through sound.” That drama was realized in this thought-provoking Musikfest program.

Piano Heart

I don’t miss playing the piano. But I miss having a piano.

It was no easy thing to grow up in the shadow of a violinist and band leader, watched over by an opera aficionado, mocked by a large, grand piano parked like a monolith in the living room, its white and black keys jutting out like jagged, menacing teeth.

You don’t know what you’re doing! it always mocked, You’re just reading what’s in front of you! Anyone can do that!
Seeing 2 Pianos 4 Hands was an exercise in nostalgia. With its review of time signatures and keys, its lines about semitones and a syllabus, its portrayal of the dreaded Conservatory exams, the show, produced by Mirvish Productions and currently on at Toronto’s cozy Panasonic Theatre, gently, humorously reminded me of all the things I hated about my piano-centric past. When I began lessons at the tender age of four, I only knew it was fun to sit at a keyboard and go plunk-plunk-plunk. Over time, I derived a certain smug satisfaction from deciphering little black marks on a page. My considerably more-musical best friend across the street would come by and rock my staid classical world with his off-the-cuff, fast, fun, boogie-woogie improvisations and fancy-dancy pop tunes new and old. It irritated me because not only did it mess up the organized world of Bach, Beethoven et all the RCM presented, but it reminded me of what I could not do: play something fun, straight out of my head, without any little black squiggles for guidance. Music has an important role in my life, but it’s not an artform I can actively be a part of, because I am critically lacking in the one thing you need to make a go of it: real musical talent.
It was when I dropped formal music lessons that I realized visual and written arts come far more naturally to me than sonic ones. Writing, drawing, and photography are work -sometimes torturously so -but the kind of work I enjoy. I don’t revel in failure so much as get nervous at the prospect of throwing all my dirty laundry out for public scrutiny. It was bolstering, then, to see two men who, for all their success in other artistic disciplines, willingly reveal their shared failure at being full-time professional musicians. Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, 2P4H’s co-creators, are good at a lot of things, mainly within the realm of performance -that includes acting, directing, writing, and yes, lots of very-able piano-playing. A pair of Horowitzes they are not, but then, that’s just the point. Not everyone can -or should -be.
2 Pianos 4 Hands paints a portrait of artistry frustrated by the relentless slings and arrows of reality. The show was first performed at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 1995, and has since gone on to play over 175 different theaters worldwide, including a six-month run at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The production is simple, with two huge grand, Yamaha pianos facing each other, and the leads kitted out in formal suits (including tails) and alternating characters: piano teachers, parents, their disgruntled childhood and teenaged selves. What could easily slip into saccharine territory comes crashing back into the sour zone, thanks in part to the duo’s finely-tuned sense of timing. Moments that could be difficult for non-classical music lovers to stomach (young Ted’s swooning over a live recording of Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, for instance) are quickly given necessary shots of levity (an eyeroll here, a shrug there), elements that work in tandem with the innate chemistry between Dykstra and Greenblatt. The trust they have, in each other, the material, their abilities, the music, shows, and extends itself to both emotional scenes (like those involving a face-off between young “Teddy” and his strict father) and comedic ones (such as young Richard’s meltdown during a music competition), offering some far more than the warm-hearted fuzzies a memory show might imply. Artistic passion and brutal truths are dished out with equal vigor, making the final scene -of the two playing J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D minor, 1st Movement -all the more poignant. With the two pianos joined in one fussy piece of Baroque splendor, the line between music and theatre is rubbed away, with performer and performance becoming one expression of frustrated dreams, of altered plans, of new awakenings. 2 Pianos 4 Hands is one of those shows that makes you think, and feel, and remember, and hope, all at once. No small feat.
My child-like urge to plunk around on the keys bubbles up every now and again, minus the heavy weight of classical-music education squashing my innate creative curiosity. That’s the spark of where all my artistic (and journalistic) pursuits come from, after all- from that prickly-skinned, many-tentacled, multi-eyed, fast-swimming creature called curiosity. Part of giving in to that creature means enduring the occasional mental shit-kicking to keep at it, to commit, to sit in the damn chair until it’s done, and to go deeper and reach higher and be better. But what if you hit the glass ceiling? What if there is no “better”? Coming face-to-face with that reality is no easy task; acknowledging it in public, in front of a group of strangers, in the dark, on a stage, every night can be downright terrifying, a horror show of the highest order. But risk is good, and, in the realm of the arts, an absolute necessity. Risk keeps curiosity happy and alive. Kudos to Dykstra and Greenblatt -and to all the frustrated artists. Thank you for putting your risk on display. We hear, we paint, we write, we read, we see. Thank you for taking that risk. Thank you for the music.
Photo credits:
Top photo, Wikipedia.
Middle photo by Rick O’Brien.
2 Pianos 4 Hands photos courtesy Mirvish Productions.

Sweet Home NYC

Peeking out the tiny window as the airplane made its way into Newark International Airport, one thought struck me: ew, brown. A large brown haze hung over the New York skyline. Yet another thought: get used to it. Buck up.

As I knew would happen, I wanted to do everything the minute I left the airplane. Going at near-sprint speed through Penn Station with baggage in tow, I quickly hailed a cab and… boom, there I was, in the thick of Big Apple traffic. Traces of the big December snowstorm were still in evidence, with curbs and corners white and icy. People were everywhere. The noise, colour, lights, and textures were a lot to take in, even as I tried to place where I was and my cab driver tried to figure out the best way to get me to my destination in Soho.
After grabbing a bite at the handily-close Dean and Deluca (ridiculous, delicious, nutritious), I made the predictable visit up to Times Square, turning onto 44th Street to visit the much-loved Belasco Theater. It was there, in 1995, that a good friend and I spent many breathless hours sighing and marveling at Ralph Fiennes’ Tony-winning performance of Hamlet. Directed by the super-fab (and super-nice, as I recall) Jonathan Kent, the show remains a favorite production of a very famous play. My friend and I got up to much mischief that hot July. Not visiting the area feels like sacrilege. I go to pay homage to a time, a place, to ghosts still very much alive.

A worker at the theater gave me a small smile as I clicked a photo outside. I always think people who work at old theaters during active shows must realize they’re working in an environment where people have memories -not just the theater crew and cast, but the audience, or even non-audience. Buildings have ghosts. I heard the Belasco had a real one. Hmmm. All the old theaters up around Times Square feel haunted by past voices, spoken onstage and off, and by the shenanigans that occur in any kind of creative pressure-cooker environment. They’re not the kind of ghosts I fear so much as appreciate. I’m going to BAM tonight to see the Abbey Theatre’s production of Borkman featuring Alan Rickman. More voices and faces from long ago and/or near-and-present? Probably. Sensing that kind of thing adds so much to the experience of live performance.
It was both a past, a present, and a very determined future I sensed colliding at lastnight’s genius performance at Zinc Bar, however. Whether it was design or chance that allowed this to happen I cannot say, but I’m grateful for this so-called “New York moment” nonetheless. The last-minute set, featuring super-musician Eric Lewis, was only announced via social media on Sunday; when I read it, I may have shrieked a little bit (only the dawg knows for sure). Lewis is a huge, huge favorite of mine, and this appreciation, bolstered by a music-loving friend’s appreciation of his work, made me go deeper into Lewis’ work and his approach to his art. I’ve seen the videos, heard about the White House performance, and follow the Facebook and Twitter updates. It goes without saying, though, that nothing compares to seeing the real thing, live and up close -especially in a cozy Greenwich Village club that calmly whispers “cool” the minute you walk down the stairs and through the door.

Opening with a raucous, rolling version of Wayne Shorter’s aggressive “Pinocchio“, Lewis, accompanied by the super-talented Ian Travis on bass and Ali Jackson on drums, delivered a performance both astonishing for both its technical virtuosity and emotional resonance. With a range of facial expressions and body signals, Lewis matches his muscular, passionate musical output with expressive physicality that borders on theatrical (in a really good way). Utterly lacking in pretension, Lewis smiled shyly and gave his bandmates equal time to shine. Tellingly, he patiently endured the microphone and sound glitches as he spoke between the (lengthy if enthralling) numbers, telling the enthusiastic audience about the composition of his bouncy original “Puerto Rico“, written in the very location some years ago over “many, many emptying Heinekens one night between 2 and 7am.”
Bouncing between an endearingly lionine sexiness, demonic bug-eyed determination, and toddler-esque wide-mouthed joy, Lewis emanated a vivacious, infectious energy -one that continued (and expanded) even with his invitation to trumpet player Marcus Printup (who was seated in front of me) and saxophone player Karel Ruzsicka Jr. to join him at various points throughout the set. It became a fascinating conversation between instruments and musicians used to blending colors, textures, and timbres with ease.

Lewis’s beautiful interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” was given a tasty little spin, as well a grandly sprawling version of Breaking Benjamin’s “The Diary Of Jane.” Lewis beautifully captured the dual nature of Jackson’s paean to sensual humanity; by turns sexy, dreamy, and jauntily rhythmic, he drew out its soul-meets-jazz-meets rock hybrid nature, milking, mocking, and worshipping the creation even in its conception, slowly, slyly sculpting something sonically new, daring, and thrilling. With “The Diary Of Jane”, the former Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra pianist captured the tune’s original emo bite, adding in crunchy piano power chords and aggressive harmonics that were positively symphonic in their sweeping majesty. The term “breathtaking” feels too mild; at times I would notice my mouth hanging open, my hands clutched together, my eyes bugging out. I think I may have drooled at one point. Vanity took a firm backseat in the presence of such gargantuan artistry.
By the time Lewis got to his rock-jazz version of “Sweet Home Alabama” (the evening’s closer), he looked as if he’d run a 10K marathon; with sweat pouring off him and a wide, broad grin, he confidently pounded away on the keys, solo this time, conjuring the soul of Ray Charles, the sass of Jamie Cullum, the cool of Thelonius Monk and the outright rockingness of… Jimmy Page.
What a marriage. What a night. What a bunch of noisy ghosts. What a city.
And there’s more to come, I’m sure.

Prima Rufus


The only things that seem to be suitable to listen to after seeing Rufus Wainwright live are classical music and Queen, which is exactly what I did driving home from his concert last week. Wainwright, the son of Canadian music royalty (his father is Loudan Wainwright III, his mother was Kate McGarrigle, who passed away in January), hit Toronto last week as part of the 2010 Luminato Festival of Arts and Culture. Along with premiering his opera, Prima Donna, during the artsy fest, the beautiful, deeply mercurial Wainwright launched the tour for his latest album, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu.

Last week’s show at the grand, gilded-lined Elgin Theatre was equal parts drama, camp, comedy, and bitchy commentary; infusing the entire evening was Wainwright’s intense sense of musicality and flair for drama. The first half of the concert was strange, surreal, and not a little operatic. Before his appearance, the audience was duly informed that we were to hold our applause until the very end of the set, when Rufus had exited the stage. The lights dimmed and in he came, moving lowly and deliberately, his thin frame beddecked in feathers, eyeliner, and a very long black coat-dress. The look was very Mad-Max-meets-Monteverdi -not necessarily a bad thing if you’re aiming for drama. Playing songs mainly from the new album, the effect was equal parts impressive and infuriating: Why isn’t he looking at us? Why doesn’t he want applause? What’s with those giant blinky eyes? And that damn crazy outfit? Who does he think he is? DIVA! But maybe that was the point.

Turns out Rufus took inspiration from both silent and romance-horror films, as well as -surprise -opera. But for all the grand poetic majesty, it was obvious (sometimes painfully) that Rufus, with pale skin and fair locks, is a resolutely unapologetic, wildly insecure artist with a grand sense of talent and a keen awareness of its fragility. While he plumbs the depths of his own sonic genius, he isn’t afraid to look back to the masters, either. Traces of Glass, Gerhswin, Liszt, Elton John and Jeff Buckley ran through each chord like gold threads through grey rocks. It was as musically magical as it was theatrically maddening to sit through at points. I wanted to run as much as I wanted to stay to see what he’d do next.

Entering in a floral-print suit for the show’s second half (when we were -hurrah! -allowed to applaud), Rufus’s warm smile banished any fears of poe-faced serious artiste attitude. With songs like “Matinee Idol” and “Moulin Rouge” played to marvelous, if marvelously playful effect, he threw in a slew of bitchy asides, including one directed at a recent review of his opera that likened the work to a Loblaws shopping bag. “That just proves you’re label queens,” he sniped, to cackling applause.

And as if to underline the importance of his connection with his fans, he made the point of recognizing the dedicated bunch who follow him around. “They’re obviously very rich,” he quiped, before adding, “Actually, they’re probably not… but they’re good at looking like they are.”

Beat.

“Just like me!”

This refreshing lack of pretension, tinged with outlines of insecurity, sensitivity and deep feeling, made for an eminently watchable, involving performance. Again and again, we were reminded of just how damn great a musician Rufus really is. His performance of the controversial 2007 song “Going To A Town” was biting, angry, and bitter, and showed, to beautiful effect, his gorgeous, sonorous voice ringing through the deepe cavernous space of the Elgin. A showman, an artist, a diva, a child. And, in the end, a son. The concert ended with him playing “Walking Song”, one of his mother’s tunes about the happy times with family.

I left feeling confused, overwhelmed, and more than a little impressed. Between the strains of Ludwig van and the tender-loud yowls of Freddie Mercury driving home, I found a spot where drama, sound, and persona came together like so many crushing chords. Music doesn’t always exist to coddle, entertain, amuse or remove; sometimes it’s a complicated combination of notes, colors, feelings and memories, housed within palaces, hovels, and caves. We don’t know the spot but we trudge ahead anyway, thanks to a trusty guide with a beautiful voice. Rufus as Pied Piper? Maybe. But if I wind up over a cliff, I’ll hang onto that damn long coat for dear life. I want another tune, after all.

Who’s That Girl?

Behold, a very young Lady Gaga pounding out her life’s passion in New York City back in January 2006. I love this video. It shows Ms. Germanotta’s incredible musicianship, strong vocals, and most of all, her absolute dedication to her craft. She’s clearly enjoying the relationships she shares with her bandmates, instrument, and audience. She might seem to be an entirely different beast now, with choreographed dance numbers, flaming bras, big wigs and crazily inspired outfits, but I’d like to believe a true artist’s heart still beats within her Armani-clad chest.

Also: this is one damn catchy tune.

“Look at me now, dahlings!”

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