Thursday, July 27, 2017

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Louis Langree, conductor. July 25, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat X02, $50).

Program – The Singing Heart
Kyrie, K.90 (1772) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphony No. 35 in D major, K.385 (“Haffner”) (1782) by Mozart.
Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal (traditional, arr. Alice Parker).
Tres Cantos Nativos dos Indios Krao (traditional, arr. Marcos Leite).
Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel (spiritual, arr. Moses Hogan).
Ah vous dirai-je, maman (traditional, arr. Francisco J. Nunez).
Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80 (“Choral Fantasy”) (1808-09) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Bernadette Peters – Host
Kit Armstrong, piano; Janai Brugger, soprano; Brandie Sutton, soprano; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Jack Swanson, tenor; Miles Mykkanen, tenor; Adam Lau, bass
Young People’s Chorus of New York City, Francisco J. Nunez, artistic director
Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell, choral director

Tonight was the opening night of the MM Festival, and there were several things unusual about the program.  For one, Bernadette Peters, better known as a Broadway singer and actress, was the host.  On the program were also several traditional songs sung by the YPC, backed up by the full orchestra.  The entire program was done without a break, although there was a short pause so the piano can be brought onto the stage for the Choral Fantasy. Finally, other than for the symphony, I would be listening to the pieces for the first time.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Peters as the host.  It worked out okay.  She read from her notes, and didn’t claim to be this expert trying to teach the audience something, although I found what she said quite informative.  One time she stumbled a bit while leaving the stage, and made the audience laugh by taking a bow; sense of timing still intact, even at age 69.

I had a chance to study up on the Mozart and Beethoven pieces, so was quite prepared for them.  The Kyrie was written by Mozart when he was 16 (and numbered K.90 already), and is quite straightforward.  As with the Vivaldi piece we heard earlier this summer, it had only the phrases “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.”  What was unexpected was this was done a cappella by the YPC.  And they sounded great!  One thing that remained puzzling to me was how these people got the pitch correct for the several pieces they sang during the concert.  I am quite sure not everyone had perfect pitch.

The Haffner Symphony wasn’t performed as a single piece, but rather in three sections: Allegro con spirito; Andante; and Menuetto and Presto.  Interspersed between the sections were the songs sung by the YPC.  From what Peters said, this was supposed to be how concerts were performed during Mozart’s time, and the songs (traditional and spiritual) were all written at around that time.  Overall it was a well-performed piece, and – despite the practice during Mozart’s time – I probably would have preferred the movements played together.  (Similarly, performing Mozart on period instruments is certainly interesting, but I’d rather listen to a modern orchestra.)

The few short songs interspersed in the program were quite enjoyable.  There was a lot of (coordinated) movement during the singing, and balance was always good among the different parts.  “Tres Cantos” is based on a melody sung by the Krao tribe of northwestern Brazil, and included many sounds of birds.  I thought the words must be Portuguese, but according to the Playbill “the meaning of the text is not known, it is treated here as a group of phenemes.”  The tune we know as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (and other children’s songs) was first sung as “Ah vous dirai-je, mamam” (“Ah shall I tell you, mother”) in France, a song describing a young woman’s awakening to love; it has been adopted by various composers such as Mozart and Beethoven.  Nunez made tonight’s a cappella arrangement to “continue the distinguished tradition” (per Playbill, and what chutzpah, per I).  For this song the YPC was joined by the Very YPC, making for a rather grand sight with them holding up little lights.  Despite my dig at Nunez, there is a lot of reason to be proud of these young and very young singers.  I had recorded the group in my blog before, in an ABT ballet performance, but didn't comment at all on how (or what) they did.  The New York Times review didn't talk about them either.

The structure of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy is a bit usual.  Per the Playbill, in a December 22, 1808 Beethoven led a concert that premiered the fifth and sixth symphonies, and the fourth piano concerto (with composer at keyboard), plus other works with vocalists and chorus.  For good measure he threw in this 20-minute piece with an unusual structure: it begins with a solo piano playing in an improvisation style, then introduced the orchestra, and concludes with vocal soloists and a chorus (excerpted from Playbill.)  The vocal section is very short, less than 5 minutes in total length, and is considered by many as a precursor to “Ode to Joy” in the ninth symphony.  Here there are six soloists instead of the four in the symphony.

After the performance of the Choral Fantasy.

I had listened to the piece a couple of times before tonight, and I still enjoyed it very much.  Kit Armstrong was born in 1992, but evidently started his music life at a very young age.  The Wikipedia entry on him contains some amazing information, including starting college at age 9 (although he didn’t graduate until he was 22.)  He is quite small, yet generated a great sound from the piano.  The choral part wasn’t as grand as that in the symphony, yet it was no less inspiring.  But I do pity the chorus, they had to sit there from the beginning of the concert.

As we were about to leave the auditorium after the conclusion, we found out there was going to be an encore piece.  It didn’t sound as good listening to it at the door.

The New York Times came out with a review soon after the program (not much work during the summer), and was generally effusive about the program and the performance.  One dig, though: "If the concept lacked focus, the rewards were many."

We bought tickets to three MM concerts this season, at a discount from  I still remember panning the sound of the orchestra a few years ago, they have certainly made great progress since then.

We left home early, worried that traffic would be bad during the summer.  It was not bad at all. Not feeling that hungry, we got takeout and ate next to the Julliard School.

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