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Sylvia Milo’s Powerful Biodrama The Other Mozart Goes Global

“They didn’t save my letters,” Sylvia Milo’s Nannerl Mozart muses early on in The Other Mozart, Milo’s witheringly relevant one-woman show now on world tour after a wildly successful  three-year New York theatrical run. If you find the glass ceiling in music troubling, consider that it wasn’t until the Reagan era – irony of ironies – that an all-female rock band, the Go-Gos, achieved national prominence. For a woman instrumentalist in jazz, the challenges continue to be daunting. And you can still count the internationally known women orchestral conductors on the fingers of one hand. In that context, is it any wonder that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his dad tossed aside Nannerl’s responses to their breathless chronicle of touring their era’s great European concert halls?

Milo’s tragicomic biodrama about “Wolfie” Mozart’s lesser-known but reputedly just as talented older sister has already been performed in the Mozart family apartment in Salzburg; the Mostly Mozart Festival here in New York would be the logical venue for a triumphant homecoming. With a lithely luminous, charismatic presence and a balletesque grace in a physically taxing role, Milo transports the audience into a world of 18th century high society drama and intrigue that puts this era’s celebrity Twitter feeds to shame. The action is nonstop, so much that in the early going, her whirlwind delivery demands especially close attention. The dialogue, most of it drawn verbatim from the Mozart family’s archival correspondence, reveals that Amadeus was hardly the only drama queen in this story. That’s a family trait, and Milo dives into that for maximum entertainment value, juicy gossip and all, although it eventually takes its toll on pretty much everyone concerned.

The great tragedy is that Nannerl’s kid brother at least got the chance to pursue his art fulltime. Her mom – who, predictably, has been lost to history to an even greater extent – couldn’t wait to put Nannerl’s childhood dreams of stardom to rest and marry her off to some bigwig. Complicating those efforts is the Mozart siblings’ past as child stars. Clearly, Nannerl dreads the thought of having peaked at a young age after having been feted as a child prodigy alongside her brother while Father Mozart, desperate to escape his dreary dayjob, pulled out all the stops in trying to ride his kids’ talent all the way across the continent, and, ultimately, out of town.

Jealousy simmers while Nannerl busies herself with smalltown drudgery, cast aside by her father and brother in their headlong dash for fame, fortune and an increasingly elusive rich patron to facilitate all of that. Milo puts all of this in context, resulting in many of the performance’s most cruelly amusing moments. After all, in Enlightenment-era Europe, everyone knew that women’s fragile constitutions and similarly weak minds put all sorts of all-male activities, the concert tour among them, permanently off limits. Milo dredges up a couple of particularly ugly, piggish quotes from none other than Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to drive that home: compared to those two, Donald Trump may not be Simone de Beauvoir, but he’s definitely a cut above when it comes to misogynist prejudice.

Although Milo saves a particularly ironic twist for the very end, the conclusion of this tale isn’t as tragic as it could have been. History tells us that Nannerl Mozart was able to find some late-career redemption, such as that could have existed for her then. Widowed and supported by an inheritance, she earned respect as a teacher, salon operator and champion of her late brother’s works. Milo doesn’t address this, but one can only wonder if Nannerl could have achieved as much without living in her brother’s shadow.

The musical score, with spot-on musical direction by Nathan Davis deserves its own stand-alone release: it’s that good. Rippling, uneasily and vividly atmospheric original compositions for toy piano and music box by Phyllis Chen are juxtaposed with well-chosen, familiar excerpts from works by Mozart and also from Marianne Martines, a popular salonniere and composer in mid-1700s Vienna. What we don’t get is Nannerl Mozart’s own work: only a fragment of one of her compositions survives.

 

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A Riveting, Revealing, Defamiliarizing Kickoff to One of New York’s Best Choir’s 2016 Season

This October 28 at 7 PM one of the most esteemed choral ensembles in this country, the Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola celebrate their parish’s 150th anniverary with a program of rare works from the Jesuit tradition by 17th century composers Domenico Zipoli and his contemporaries: Jan Josef Ignac Brentner, Bartolomé Massa and Martin Schmid. The roughly fifty-voice group, conducted by the fearlessly ambitious K. Scott Warren, is bolstered by soprano Sarah Griffiths, mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein and tenor Douglas Purcell along with a period instrument chamber ensemble. This might be your only opportunity to hear material that’s never before been performed in North America, and if this ensemble doesn’t do it, might never be performed again here.

There was a buzz at the reception after the choir’s first performance of the 2016 season. They’d just stunned a sold-out crowd with an exhaustive, era-spanning and genre-hopping performance that ranged from the pre-baroque to the present day. The theme was the ancient Greek elements: earth, air, fire and water. For the record, there was no Earth, Wind and Fire song on the bill – maybe next time they can transfix the crowd with a fifty-voice take of Boogie Wonderland. The controversy this time out concerned the merits of interspersing the four Vvialdi-inspired movements of Frank Ferko‘s The Seasons – a richly dynamic, rapturously ambitious string quartet with choir – along with selections from Gustav Holst’s Choral Hymns From the Big Veeda suite, amid the other works on the bill, rather than playing each suite all the way through without interruption.

Warren opted for defamiliarizing everyone, making a strikingly seamless shift between the 21st century American avant garde, late Romanticism drawing heavily on Indian influences, rapt minimalism, knotty earlier 20th century works and the occasional friendly, familiar departure into lustrous Renaissance polyphony. The younger contingent in the crowd heartily endorsed Warren’s ambition; an older crowd voiced a mixed response. Whatever your taste, if you think that keeping up was hard on the audience, imagine being among the choir gathered onstage. Singers are routinely expected to deliver material in unfamiliar genres and languages without a hitch, but this was a real workout for everyone concerned.

What concertgoers might forget is that this world-class choir – although frequently augmented with the prowess of internationally known professionals – it remains at its heart a local church ensemble, albeit a magnet for Manhattan’s best voices. If that isn’t testament to the resilence of New York under the luxury condo blitzkrieg, nothing is. They made the shifts between genres look easy. On the minimalist side, two pieces from Julia Adolphe‘s immersively coloristic Sea Drean Elegies were arguably the most rapturous points of the concert. On the other hand, that could easily have been said about the crescendoing eclecticism of Stephen Paulus’ Songs from the Japanese, or the concert’s ambitious concluding number, composer John Kennedy’s Someday. As for the Ferko, arguably the most memorable of all the works on the bill, its bristling, trickily rhythmic second movement almost seemed to make more sense when, amid several detours, its hypnotically swaying Summer gave way to the kind of ambered, prayerful lustre his work is known for, in the final two movements. You can experience the same kind of rapture on the Upper East Side on the 28th.

A Mighty Kickoff to This Year’s Mostly Mozart Festival

How do you advertise art? Let the public experience it. If it’s good, it sells itself. No doubt a whole lot of tickets to this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival were sold after Friday night’s performance of the G major Violin Concerto and then the “Jupiter” Symphony at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra‘s musical director, Louis Langrée, reminded the audience that eighty degrees is the cutoff point for many European orchestras playing outdoor shows. The mercury here was closer to twenty degrees higher, but the ensemble soldiered on, after being a given a fervently appreciative shout from their maestro. Within the confines of the bandshell at the back of the park, they didn’t have the benefit of the wind gusting through the rest of the Lincoln Center complex.

As demanding as this music is to play under normal circumstances, with its endless volleys of eighth notes, the challenge takes on a whole new dimension under such trying circumstances. That the orchestra would play so robustly, and with such attention to detail, testifies to their collective spirit. Although the ensemble is only active in the summer for this annual festival, it’s more than just a pickup group – there are a lot of returning members, and their camaraderie was contagious. Nineteen-year-old prodigy Simone Porter joined them as the soloist for the concerto, bringing a strikingly searching intensity and a warily modulated tone, particularly in the second movement. That’s where the piece deviates from being comfortably bubbly wine-hour music for the Viennese one-percenters for whom it was written, and she seized on those moments with an apt tinge of angst. She’s an old soul.

At least in New York, the “Jupiter” Symphony surprisingly doesn’t get programmed as frequently as you might think. Although there’s no telling what a new conductor will do for the New York Philharmonic, year after year it’s Brahms who ends up at the top of the charts, at least as far as concert halls are concerned. So this was a chance to get up close and personal with an old standby: those among us (guess who) willing to date ourselves as having grown up with WQXR wafting gently from the family stereo speakers can vouch for that familiarity.

What stood out during this performance? Dynamics: for those who eschewed the long line to to get in to the rows of seats, at the rear of the park it was actually hard to hear the quietest moments, even with amplification, because the sound diminished to a literal whisper. Which set up a mighty contrast with the symphony’s titanic swells, to match the gusts of hot wind blowing on the crowd like vacuum cleaner exhaust.

That, and a playfully slithery bassoon cadenza that seemingly appeared out of nowhere during the third movement. Admittedly, the only other person who seized on that particular moment was probably the individual who played it, but Mozart provides hundreds if not thousands of those. Despite its heft, it’s not a particularly heavy piece of music, yet there’s no question how much fun the composer had writing it. Langrée and the orchestra reprise their performance of it on August 9 and 10 at 7:30 PM at Avery Fisher Hall; pianist Richard Goode performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A to open the night. $35 seats are still available as of today.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Plays One for the Ages

The buzz after the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s concert yesterday evening was that they’d just made their definitive live album. There were mics prominently set up toward the front at Murray Hill’s sonically magnificent Church of the Incarnation: if the recording is in any kind of decent shape, they’ve got as good a representation as anything the New York Philharmonic have ever put out. Some audience members credited this sleek, insightful, literally flawless performance to the church’s sonics. Others more cynical considered that the shock of having to adjust to new digs might have jarred the ensemble into one of their firest performances of recent years, considering that their usual Irving Place home base is currently shuttered and under repairs in the wake of a fire.

Whatever the case, conductor Barbara Yahr led the group through an exquisite performance. They opened with Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo, Andres Cardenes the soloist on violin. Playing from memory, he approached the music with a purposeful drive and a subtlety of tone, very light on the vibrato and incisive rather than keening, in a Yehudi Menuhin vein. Yahr’s interpretation of the Agadio was as a pillowy nocturne, strings and winds so seamless that they seemed like one single, plush instrument. Sometimes Mozart gets carried away with his stereo effects, but not in the Rondo, and the orchestra matched that subtlety, both with dynamics and detail, Cardenes sailing overhead.

Interestingly, the program notes mentioned how Max Bruch had some doubts about how to characterize his Violin Concerto No. 1. Was it contiguous enough to be a real concerto, or is it just, say, some kind of partita or fantasy? Bruch’s virtuoso violinist pal Joseph Joachim reassured him that it was plenty cohesive enough. Which is kind of funny, because it’s sort of all over the place… in a good way. It’s a study in contrasts, amplified by both orchestra and soloist, tenderness juxtaposed against a marching theme that, after a lustrous, meticulously moody, spaciously paced second movement, takes a long upward climb toward a rather droll coda. It made a good segue with the Mozart.

Yahr explained to the crowd that she saw Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, “The Reformation” as cycle of transformation on a very personal level, mirroring the religious paradigm shift that the composer sought to illustrate. We don’t know for certain, but some think that Mendelssohn didn’t think too highly of it since it was never published in his lifetime. What became crystal clear from the moment the orchestra launched into it is how clever, and often very funny, it is. It’s a big shout-out to Bach and has the same kind of drama as the St. Matthew Passion, with quotes from both Bach and the German Lutheran hymnal deftly interspersed amidst the increasing drama. Typical Mendelssohnian ebullience and optimism took a dip into a stately waltz and then an absolutely luscious, cantabile third movement before rise to epically anthemic proportions that had Yahr, usually a very meticulous and composed presence on the podium, caught it up its irresistible sway. Forget the album for a minute: this would have made a great DVD.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is on May 22 at 3 PM, with works by Gershwin, Hindemith, Mozart and Tschaikovsky’s Capriccio Italian, the fantastic trumpeter Brandon Ridenour as soloist at a venue TBA. Watch this space.

Seraphic Fire Deliver Thrills and Transcendence at Trinity Church

That the Mozart Requiem wasn’t the centerpiece of the program last night at Trinity Church speaks to the ambition of conductor Patrick Dupre Quigley and the transformative brilliance of his choir, Seraphic Fire. The sixteen-piece ensemble put on a virtuosic display of vocal prowess and daunting extended technique, not for the sake of show but for emotional impact. The sold-out crowd – comprising all ages and pretty much every demographic that exists in this multicultural city – rewarded them with a series of standing ovations.

Quigley programmed the Mozart as a coda, including new material by Gregory Spears, replacing the three next-to-last segments originally cobbled together by Franz Sussmayr in the wake of Mozart’s death. On one hand, this was as much of stretch for the audience as it was for the emsemble. Sure, singers on as elite a level as this crew are expected to shift on a dime between very diverse idioms, but there was definitely some gearshifting going on as the group – backed elegantly by chamber ensemble the Sebastians – voiced Spears’ minimalistic and frequently challenging variations on comfortably post-baroque Mozart riffs. Spears didn’t follow Mozart’s eighteenth century tonalities for long, but he did stay true to the original thematically, moving between stately waltz time, lustrous washes of sound and plaintively prayerful interludes. Since the Requiem is an incomplete work – if you include all the repetition, only about twenty percent of it is original Mozart – lots of composers have taken up the challenge of wrapping it up. Quigley encouraged the crowd to see this new version as a requiem in the broad sense of the word, a memorial service open to those who need to contribute and share

Interestingly, Quigley didn’t direct the Mozart portions of the work as a mighty, all-stops-out tour de force as choirs tend to do. Instead, he led the group on a matter-of-fact build through sorrow and wistfulness to the fullscale angst of where Mozart realizes that this is finally it.

The rest of the program was sublime. The choir opened with Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach, its enveloping, misty textures and endless washes of sustain showcasing the singers’ seemingly effortless command of circular breathing. Baroque composer Heinrich Schutz’s Selig, Sind die Toten, with its striking balance of celestial highs and pillowy lows, made an apt segue with Mendelssohn’s Richte Mich, Gott, considering how much its early Romantic composer drew on Schutz’s forward-thinking orchestration. The group channeled the same kind of confident ebullience and optimism that characterize Mendelssohn’s organ works.

Throughout the terse, nebulously minimalist variations on simple, baroque motives in a new arrangement of Ingram Marshall’s Hymnodic Delays – originally written for vocal quartet and loops rather than a full sixteen-piece ensemble – the group foreshadowed what they’d do with Spears’ work a little later. And soprano Molly Quinn made the most of her flickering and then soaringly riveting appearances in front of the choir, in and out of Dominick DiOrio’s I Am, a prayerfully-tinged, bittersweet launching pad for her literally spine-tingling flights to the upper registers as it wound up on an optimistic note. Seraphic Fire return to Trinity Church on April 20 at 7:30 PM with a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem.

The Spectrum Symphony Brings Lustre and Good Cheer to the Upper West

In an exciting new development for Upper Westsiders, the Spectrum Symphony has migrated uptown and has found new digs at Broadway Presbyterian Church at 114th and Broadway, just steps from the 1 train. Sure, it’s not much of a shlep down to Lincoln Center or Carnegie, but what this orchestra plays is close enough to what you can get there to make staying in the neighborhood worthwhile, if lush symphonic sounds are your thing. And the Miler Theatre, with their adventurous series of free “pop up” concerts, is just up the block!

Last night conductor David Grunberg led the ensemble through a comfortable, confident program of mostly familiar Beethoven amd Mozart material from the WQXR playlist, along with an unexpected new treat. It was a lustrous, workmanlike performance, more European than American in its matter-of-factness. There was a comforting, homey quality to the music: it was like being at the concerts or recording sessions that QXR typically plays, but present and immersed in the music rather than multitasking as it wafts in the background.

And much as most of the program enabled calm and quiet reverie, the orchestra nailed all of Beethoven’s signature “is anybody listening” tropes, one by one, with verve and good cheer. That slithery chromatic climb toward the end of the Leonore Overture? Check. The series of speed bumps that the composer throws into the orchestra’s path right before the coda of his Symphony No. 1? Doublecheck. Grunberg brought an uncluttered precisoin to those moments as well as the gleaming interweave and exchange of short phrases that dominated much of the rest of the two works.

Clarinetist Vadim Lando took centerstage in a surprisingly brisk, adrenalized version of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. If you grew up in the pre-youtube era with QXR on your parents’ radio, or on yours, you know this piece and the Beethoven too. The extra jolt of energgy – Lando really working up a sweat in the final volleys – encouraged attentive listening rather than simply drifting along with the composer’s joyous and then suddenly grim narrative: you mean that it’s all over, this soon? But it’s been so much fun…and the party was just getting started!

As enjoyable as these old favorites were, the highlight of the program was the world premiere of film composer Russell J. Courter‘s Atmospheres, a trumpet concerto of sorts backed by an uneasy tone poem. Soloist Christopher Scanlon set the tone with his tersely moody resonance as the orchestra rose from tense ambience to a cautious round-robin of exchanges and finally an anguished swell. Grunberg may have sensed a similar unease in the audience, as far as new music is concerned, and addressed that by reminding that there’s really no difference in listening, whether to something familiar or brand-new: you just do it. And when the piece was over, he led the orchestra through it a second time, which worked because it’s only about five minutes long – and a second go-round was even more rewarding, and might have been a little more amped up.

Just four beats into the last of the Beethoven, Grunberg stopped the music and turned to the crowd, encouraging them to join him and the orchestra at a bar down the block after the show. Which made sense: Beethoven would have done the same thing. For that matter, he was known for not waiting until the end of the show. Watch this space for upcoming Spectrum Symphony performances – all of which will have free admission for the rest of the 2015-16 season.

The Queensboro Symphony Orchestra Play a Refreshingly New Take on Old Sounds

In concert, at least, symphonic music varies much more than you might think, considering how specific the instructions are from composer to conductor and musicians. Then again, that difference of interpretation is what makes orchestral concerts so much fun (and sometimes, so painfully disappointing) to be immersed in. Last night the up-and-coming Queensboro Symphony Orchestra offered two highly individualistic, richly successful takes on a couple of popular works from the standard repertoire, as well as a smooth run-through of another.

That one was Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro. “Here’s what’s gonna happen,” says Mozart. “This will give you a basic idea of what to expect. This isn’t heavy, it’s upbeat and fun and sometimes funny, and you’re going to be entertained. And I’m gonna keep the musicians on their toes, make it conversational, so they’re entertained too.” And that’s how this ensemble played it.

Next on the bill was an intensely dynamic take of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor. Conductor Dong Hyun Kim led the orchestra very calmly and precisely out of the sub-basement, setting the thermostat very low so that when the stormy ambience finally kicked in during the second movement, the contrast packed all the more wallop. Violin soloist Yosub Kim delivered frenetic, spectacularly shivery flights against a slowly pulsing, rather ominous backdrop for much of the piece, another study in contrasts that drew spontaneous applause from the crowd between every movement. When the orchestra finally cut loose in a series of triumphantly foreboding waves at the very end, a battering ram in a velvet glove, it made for a mighty payoff.

The concert ended with a similarly individualistic version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Listen to just about any recording of the third movement, and the highest strings’ ambience in the early going will barely be present. At this concert, they were very loud, completely transforming the music with a whole new level of suspense. Beethoven is foreshadowing here: that this conductor caught that, where so many others don’t, wasn’t the only exciting development in full effect at this concert. There were other contrasts, notably in the high winds and brass, that added considerable color, especially throughout the symphony’s ebullient first movement.

The abrupt transition from major to minor toward the end of that movement was vividly reflected in the somber second; the ending was everything it’s known for, Beethoven at his most Beethovenesque. It’s basically a very long outro, one false ending after another, the composer going for laughs at every juncture, teasing the conductor, the musicians and most of all you. What a fun way to end a broodingly overcast Sunday night.

The Queensboro Symphony Orchestra makes a move outside their usual digs for a special young people’s concert of vocal music and concertos by Haydn, Mozart and others at St. Ann’s Church, 58-02 146th St. in Flushing this coming Sunday, December 13 at 7 PM. If you don’t live in the neighborhood, it’s a comfortable 25-minute walk from the Main St. 7 train (last stop); go straight up Main and continue through this quiet residential area to 58th Ave and make a left, then walk three blocks. You can also take the Main St. bus right from the subway.

The Spectrum Symphony Bring an Exciting, Eclectic Program to the West Village

Orchestras are like restaurants in that new ones usually take awhile before they work out all the quirks. The Spectrum Symphony, on the other hand, have a lush, experienced gravitas, and sound as if they’ve been around a long time, even as they’ve taken a promising role in advocating for new music. Their previous concert in the comfortable, surround-sound sonics of St. Joseph’s Church on 6th Avenue in the West Village was a characteristic mix of ideas and emotions from across the ages, delivered with meticulous detail under the baton of conductor David Grunberg. The group’s next concert is this Wednesday, March 25 at 7:30 PM, with an auspicious program featuring Anthony Iannaccone’s From Time to Time, Fantasias on Two Appalachian Folksongs; Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, with soloist Victoria Mushkatkol and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3 at St. Joseph’s Church, 371 6th Ave. south of Waverly. Cover is $20.

The ensemble’s previous concert here featured a dreamy diptych of Elgar’s Sospiri paired with Massenet’s popular Méditation (from the opera Thaïs), Susan Heerema’s terse, masterfully nuanced violin imbuing it with both lullaby calm and a distant restlessness over pillowy strings. By contrast, the world premiere of Jun Yi Chow’s Serenade mashed up a lively neoromantic drive, a big, acidic fanfare and an austerely otherworldly, circular string conclusion, in the process channeling a hundred years of orchestral music.

Soloist Gerard Reuter’s alternatingly dancing and richly resonant oboe fueled Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, K.314 over a lush backdrop equally infused with stateliness and joyously precise teamwork. The concert concluded with a Haydn masterwork, Symphony No. 101, “The Clock,” which earned its nickname from the playfully metronomic rhythm of its second movement. Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than that. The orchestra brought out all the earnestly driving, singalong bustle in the opening movement and its waltzing reprise in the third, a balletesque, goodnatured precision in the famous second movement, and eventually a conclusion rich with color and attention to dynamic shifts. This week’s concert promises as much or even more, considering the program.