MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Thrilling Berlioz and Mahler with Guest Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and Seattle Symphony

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Giancarlo Guerrero conducting the Seattle Symphony; photo (c)Carlin Ma

It’s one thing to fulfill an emergency engagement, subbing at the last minute for to conduct an orchestra that’s essentially new to you.

But when the program is as challenging as the one Ludovic Morlot had planned to launch Seattle Symphony’s main concert series, the stakes are significantly intensified.

Giancarlo Guerrero pulled it all off to extraordinary effect on Thursday evening, the first of three concerts pairing Berlioz and Mahler. Guerrero has made himself an invaluable musical force as music director of the Nashville Symphony, where he actively promotes a vigorous commitment to new music and American composers. He’s also pursued creative links with that city’s rich music scene beyond the classical realm. [Full disclosure: I serve as the Nashville Symphony’s program annotator.]

Technically, this wasn’t the Costa Rica-born maestro’s first rendez-vous with the SSO. I can’t find any online record of it–and would love to know what the program was–though he did conduct them once before: apparently in 2004. But the membership has changed significantly since (seven members joining/rejoining the ranks as of this season), and this was no program of routine, tried-and-true orchestral fare. [Update: It was an all-Gershwin program in what was then called the “light classics series”: An American in Paris, the Concerto in F, Catfish Row, and Rhapsody in Blue — h/t Jeff Eldridge.]

(I wrote separately about Morlot’s thinking behind the program. A leg injury has sidelined the maestro, causing him to miss the season’s opening events.)

The concert began with a Berlioz rarity: La Mort de Cléopâtre, one of the four cantatas he wrote in his bid to win the Prix de Rome. (Despite its beauties, this one, from 1829, didn’t succeed with the jurors.) It’s not only a fascinating piece, but Guerrero shaped it with commendable conviction, coaxing some splendid nuances from the SSO.

And the soloist, Dutch mezzo Christianne Stotijn, credibly inhabited her character as the desperate Cleopatra facing the ultimate humiliation from her latest Roman conqueror, Octavian: sexual indifference and the prospect of trading her throne for a future of enslavement.

The writing is at times downright awkward, with long stretches of recitative, and it took a few minutes to begin making its proper impact. But Stotijn used the music’s fascinatingly unpredictable blend of anxiety, pride, shame, and sorrow to shape Cleopatra’s awareness of being trapped–and, ultimately, her restored sense of power by choosing her quietus to make.

Stylistically, it’s all very mixed: Berlioz’s love of Mozart and Gluck sits side by side with wildly original harmonies and orchestral effects, especially in the passage Berlioz devises to depict the aura of Cleopatra’s Pharaonic forebears.

Significantly, Berlioz doesn’t supply a transcendent Liebestod in which Cleopatra envisions her forthcoming liberation through death. (Then again, he was limited to a text pre-selected for him to set by the jury.) Instead, the cantata concludes in suspense and sepulchral darkness. Guerrero elicited especially impressionable moments here, allowing full resonance for Berlioz’s notably understated conclusion–all the more effective after the torrent of passions expressed earlier.

And that was just the first half of this remarkable concert. Guerrero has cultivated his gifts as a Mahler interpreter over the past decade with the Nashville Symphony, but this was my first opportunity to hear his Mahler live. The impact of his Mahler Second was electric and lasting.

Overall, Guerrero exuded an air of inspired confidence, of knowing just what he needed to get from the orchestra and singers without being overly controlling. His podium manner is quite interesting to watch: like a film director right on top of where the camera’s eye should be, he zoomed in and out, cutting across to dramatically contrasting shots and perspectives.

Guerrero turned orchestral knobs and signaled “more” for the many shattering climaxes that punctuate this symphony lasting the length of a feature film. In the Andante immediately following the vast, funereal opening movement, the scene changed so drastically it was as if we had landed for the moment in an entirely different narrative, as the conductor nearly held still, using minimal, graceful gestures to get maximal bloom. For a few moments, I was hoping Guerrero would observe the five-minute pause Mahler asks for in the wake of the devastating first movement (which he apparently has done in Nashville). Perhaps some intangible factor from the audience made him decide to limit the break to a more conventional length.

The scherzo’s restless flow (in which Mahler recycled his setting of the Wunderhorn tune “St. Anthony Preaching to the Fish”) churned evocatively, with Guerrero wiggling to direct the flow just so. He also underscored the bittersweet klezmer snap of the commenting woodwinds (featuring Ben Lulich’s wondrously phrased clarinet).

Stotijn sang a moving “Urlicht” over radiant brass and a serene bank of beautifully balanced string harmonies. That movement convinced me how multilayered Guerrero’s vision of Mahler is: he had no hesitation to go full throttle in the outer movements (and in the “panic” outburst of the Scherzo, where the intertextuality of Mahler’s symphonies–here anticipating the Third–is so strikingly manifest). But he also showed faith in Mahler’s gentlest orchestrations, savoring its most delicate intimations with genuine sensuousness.

If there’s a musical equivalent to the scope of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine, the last movement of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony has to be a major candidate. A few moments seemed to lose a sense of the bigger picture–and this score, for all its miracles, is not without flaws–but I especially valued the suspense Guerrero built up in this scenario of Mahlerian apocalypse.

The Seattle Symphony Chorale didn’t quite achieve the sotto voce effect that makes the choral entrance such a unique, impossible moment, but they ensured that the catharsis Mahler writes into this score happened nonetheless, singing with soul-shattering, heaven-storming power, reinforced by Joseph Adam on the organ. Soprano Malin Christensson joined Stotijn, contributing thrilling colors that soared atop the mass of choral voices.

The SSO, dramatically expanded with guest players and crowding the concert stage, gifted the audience with some of the finest Mahler I’ve heard this orchestra achieve.

Review (c)2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

Filed under: Berlioz, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

Cellist Jan Vogler and His Trio Venture into “New Worlds” with Bill Murray

Mira-WangBill-Murray-Jan-Vogler-New-Worlds-Tour-Photo-by-WP-Photography-Taken-at-Napa-Valley-Festival-August-2017My latest for Strings magazine (October issue):

Chamber music is all about knowing how to forge close partnerships. For the world-renowned cellist Jan Vogler, that instinct includes connecting to artists beyond the classical-music sphere. But he didn’t expect a serendipitous encounter with Bill Murray to lead to one of the most innovative projects he has ever undertaken.

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Filed under: cello, chamber music, programming, Strings

Seattle Symphony’s Captivating Season Opener with Renée Fleming

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Seattle Symphony opening night, with conductor Pablo Rus Broseta and soprano Renée Fleming

On Saturday, Seattle Symphony kicked off its new season with special guest Renée Fleming. Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta was on the podium, filling in for Music Director Ludovic Morlot (who was prevented by a leg injury from opening his seventh — and second-to-last — season helming the SSO).

Such affairs are often little more than a lightweight, pleasant upbeat to the season proper. But last night’s performance proved captivating throughout and contained several genuinely memorable moments.

Both halves of the program kept Fleming at the center of attention. The beloved soprano — who sang the National Anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl that brought the Seahawks victory — was in very fine voice indeed. To showcase different aspects of her artistry, she offered an unusual mixture that ranged from mid-century Samuel Barber to arrangements of songs by Björk and some little-known Italian gems from the late 19th century.

The Barber and Björk selections are paired on Fleming’s Distant Light album as well, released at the beginning of this year. Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by itself became a compendium of Fleming at her most expressive: full tonal support, lush brushstrokes for sustained notes, and emotionally resonant phrasing were in generous supply, together with sensitivity to the nuances of James Agee’s text.

Drawing on all this, Fleming was able to shape the touching flashes of insight from a childhood recalled. Instead of the more comforting, lulling vision of bittersweet nostalgia for a vanished America, her account made it clear that this is a rare musical portrait of  innocence dissected — an innocence that, as the musical element reinforces, can only be ephemeral.

Fleming followed this with a foray into a pair of songs by  Björk, the adventurous, fantastically original Icelandic singer and songwriter.  She sang “Virus” (from Biophilia) and “All Is Full of Love” (from Homogenic), creating a rapturous glow in the second. But even using a mic (though from what I could tell, there was no instrumental amplification), her middle voice occasionally become drowned by the rather gentle ambient orchestration.

The concert’s second half went completely Italian. Fleming gave charming introductions to the fare, which featured sun-dappled lyricism for Licinio Refice’s Ombra di nube (from her Guilty Pleasures album) and Tosti’s delectable Aprile, as well as the swooning fatalism of the famous avalanche aria from Catalani’s La Wally (an operatic death teasingly described by the soprano).

The highlight here was Fleming’s full-throttle version of “L’altra notte in fondo al mare” from Arrigo Boïto’s Mefistofele. She made the misfortunate Margherita’s roller-coaster ride of a mad scene stunningly vivid and perturbing, peppered with featherweight trills that sounded downright eerie in the context, all the more so for their technical finesse.

Leslie Chihuly (in her final season chairing SSO’s Board of Directors) announced the lineup of seven (!) new musician appointments with the SSO:  Demarre McGill (returning as principal flute), John DiCesare (principal tuba), Emil Khudyev (associate principal clarinet), Andy Liang (second violin section), Danielle Kuhlmann (fourth horn), Christopher Stingle (second trumpet), and Michael Myers (fourth/utility trumpet).

All except McGill were able to participate in this concert, and there was a palpable sense of rejuvenating energy.  Having profiled this talented young conductor for Musical America a year ago, I wasn’t at all surprised by how splendidly Pablo Rus Broseta acquitted himself of this high-stakes assignment.

Framing each half of the concert with a substantial overture — Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal and Verdi’s to La forza del destino — Rus Broseta showed a remarkable command of small details that make big differences, as in his calibration of the brass balance in the Verdi. It had such bite, I felt a sudden urge to see the entire opera, one of Verdi’s wildest creations.

Rus Broseta has a disciplined mind — tempered by his Modernist training — and never settles for the “showy” surface. And he was a sensitive partner with Fleming, allowing her to shine above all in the Barber and Boïto.

Extending the generous, positive spirit of the evening, Fleming returned for a set of three encores.  Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, featuring her lustrous high A-flat, is an example, she suggested, of perhaps the perfect universal aria. With an invitation to the audience to join her in “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, Fleming also gave a nod to one of her upcoming new ventures later this season, when she makes her Broadway debut in Carousel. And with a deeply felt “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka, she acknowledged her own early years in opera.

Review by Thomas May (c)2017 – All rights reserved

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Sets Tone for Ambitious Season

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Giancarlo Guerrero is filling in forSeattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot. (Photography by Ma2la)

My latest Seattle Times story:

Gustav Mahler knew how to persist.

In 1888, the twenty-something Mahler played the first movement of his Second Symphony on the piano for conductor Hans von Bülow, an important early mentor. Bülow was famous for, among other things, introducing the world to a score once regarded as “unplayable”: Wagner’s epochal “Tristan und Isolde.”

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Filed under: Mahler, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

John Luther Adams World Premiere at Emerald City Music

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My latest Seattle Times story:

Emerald City Music is an innovative series that presents chamber music in a relaxed, intimate South Lake Union venue as well as around the region. Fresh off its inaugural season, Emerald City landed an opportunity to present a world premiere from one of today’s hottest composers.

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Filed under: John Luther Adams, Seattle Times

Overwhelmed by Cerha

Recently, I had one of my most remarkable experiences in the concert hall ever. In the middle of this summer’s Lucerne Festival, this was a performance that I was initially only “curious” to hear, bringing no real expectations with me. The program consisted of the complete Spiegel by Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha, being given its belated Swiss premiere as a full 90-minute cycle, performed by the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra with Matthias Pintscher on the podium.

As my friend visiting that day remarked, “This music is so human. Despite everything going on, it’s incredible that we can still do things like this.” The Spiegel Cycle, understandably a rarity to encounter live — and that’s the only real way to encounter it, especially in such a committed performance from these enormously talented young musicians — is a landmark of 20th-century “originality,” often tagged as an instance of the Klangflächenkomposition movement, in which the actual sonorities produced by an orchestra provide the center of interest (think Ligeti and Xenakis).

But unlike, say, Ligeti, who can sound more “otherworldly” in comparison, Cerha’s unprecedented experiments in this direction seem to implicitly evoke more “accessible” dramatic impulses without losing anything of their audacity and originality.

In a talk beforehand, the 91-yer-old Cerha, who still composes, spoke of a twofold connotation in his choice of the title Spiegel. One is architectural: the overall design is an arch form, with movements mirroring one another around the central Spiegel IV: III and V share certain characteristics, as do II and VI and I and VII, a summarizing movement that also mirrors what has gone before. And there are internal cross-references within the individual movements.

The second connotation Cerha mentioned is autobiographical, though he says he didn’t come to realize this until the 1980s, long after he began the project in 1960 and assumed what he was writing was so outrageous it would never actually be performed. Spiegel can be seen as a reflection of and coming to terms with his traumatizing experiences in the Second World War, when he was drafted as a teenager and deserted. But like any great work of art, the ultimate reflection will be of the experience the listener brings to it.

The concept of composing without motifs, themes, counterpoint, rhythmic phrases — all the traditional “thinking” processes of Western music — is incredibly liberating, but also frightening. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Baroque Affekt in terms of the mood that dominates a movement. But the emotional complexity elicited is of a high order.

Cerha even foregoes the instinct to use the orchestra in terms of its choirs. All of the voices of his enormous orchestral apparatus are autonomous, though they do gather and unite to thrilling effect.  Pintscher conducted with his hands and inspired the young players to new heights. Each Spiegel called for a separate score, which he ritually put to the side when done, pulling out the next one. His control of the massive crescendos that gradually detonate was remarkable, Pintscher practically flying with wing-like arms).

The climax to end all climaxes that arrives in Spiegel VII brings with it something beyond catharsis: a power of expression that sees hope beyond the devastation in the very fact that it can be articulated by such art.

Filed under: Friedrich Cerha, Lucerne Festival, Lucerne Festival Academy

Guest Report: Tom Luce on This Year’s BBC Proms

During a recent London stay I got to more than a dozen of this season’s BBC Promenade Concerts and have heard many of the others through the BBC’s website.

It is 90 years since the BBC first promoted and managed the series. In recent decades the Corporation has progressively enlarged its boundaries without losing a strong representation of core classical music. The boundaries stretched include the number and timing of concerts, their venues, the repertory performed and the number and provenance of its performers.

This year there are 92 concerts – on average nearly two concerts a day for the eight week season. 74 are in London’s Royal Albert Hall the series’ traditional venue, 10 being late-night concerts following conventionally timed evening events.

There are weekly chamber concerts in a smaller London hall, and concerts in venues chosen to reach people for whom central London concert halls are geographically inconvenient or socio-culturally unfamiliar– Hull on the North-East coast, a South London multi-storey car park, and an East London Music Hall for example.

New music has included 10 BBC commissions given world or British premieres and a rather larger number of other pieces given first British or European performances. The core repertory from the seventeenth century to our own is comprehensively covered but there are excursions into high quality examples of other musical traditions.

This year’s offerings include a brilliantly staged, sung, danced and played Oklahoma, a late night celebration of Indian and Pakistan’s classical music (very late – scheduled to end around one in the morning), and a fascinating cross-fertilisation of that tradition and US minimalism in a performance of Passages, jointly composed by the young Philip Glass and the late Ravi Shankar.

Some concerts mark the achievements in their own fields of such icons as Charlie Mingus, John Williams, Scott Walker, and “Ella & Dizzy”. Family concerts also feature, as does – an interesting innovation this year – a short “Relaxed Prom” for “children and adults with autism, sensory or communications impairments or learning disabilities…”.

Each season marks major composer anniversaries or world events reflected in the repertoire. This year the 80th birthday of John Adams, the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation and the 100th of the Russian revolution were influential on the programmes.

48 orchestras and ensembles play the concerts led by over 60 conductors. The BBC’s in-house orchestras, based in London, Wales, Scotland and Manchester, between them make nearly 30 appearances.

Other British orchestras and groups from London and the regions take a large share of the others but there are 14 from abroad – for example Berlin, Vienna, St Petersburg, Amsterdam, Paris, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Milan, Bremen, Freiburg, Oslo, Stockholm and the European Chamber Orchestra. Fine choirs from Latvia and Spain have also made contributions.

Judging from my attendance and listening this year and in other recent years standards of performance range from high to superlative. Performances of Elgar’s two completed symphonies, Harrison Birtwistle’s new major work Deep Time, and the Sibelius Violin Concerto by Daniel Barenboim with violinist Lisa Batiashvili and the superb Berliner Staatskapelle were at a level that I do not expect ever to hear equalled.

The same is true of the Gurrelieder concert given by the London Symphony and a huge chorus under Simon Rattle and a profoundly moving and accomplished performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and their Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo. Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust given by John Eliot Gardiner and his teams came as close to a definitive performance of that fascinating but elusive and challenging work as one can ever hope to hear or imagine. 

Equally memorable was a performance of Bach’s St John Passion by John Butt and the Edinburgh-based Dunedin ensemble. This was placed within a re-enactment of a Lutheran Good Friday service. Short organ pieces by Bach and Buxtehude, as well as three chorales briefly pre-rehearsed and then sung by the entire audience (all 5,000 of us), were wrapped around the Bach Passion, and there was a beautiful liturgical anthem by Jacobus Handl to end the 3 ½ hour event.

The Bach performance was itself excellent (and, wisely, the audience participated only in the extra service chorales, not the chorales within the Passion setting), but experiencing Bach’s masterpiece in this wider liturgical context did deepen understanding.

The concerts generate a strong audience response. Many are sold out or nearly so. The Albert Hall can hold 5,500 in its Promenade Concert configuration, when the central arena at stage level and the highest gallery are available only to those willing to stand for the performances. Up to 1,200 people do this “promenading”.

Acoustically the hall is a paradox. Its huge size and famously resonant acoustic make it ideal for massive choral works such as the Berlioz Requiem, Mahler’s Eighth and Second Symphonies and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. But smaller groups and even solo instrumentalists can come across surprisingly well. A sequence of late night concerts in the 2015 season covered Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas played by Alina Ibragimova, Yoyo Ma playing all six cello suites and Andras Schiff delivering the Goldberg Variations. This is not barnstorming stuff, but each and every note got across to large and enthusiastic audiences.

The hall’s shape and configuration help to explain the paradox. Its oval footprint means that there are seats behind and alongside the performers as well as to their front. This gives a “music in the round” feeling and means that sections of the audience can see each other as well as the performance stage, which creates a sense of communal participation lacking in the conventional rectangular concert hall design.

Prom audiences are characteristically absorbed and attentive while the music is played but enthusiastic to the point of exuberance when it stops. This, the bullish and celebratory tone of the BBC’s radio announcers and some of its promotional material attract criticism from those who prefer music to have a more austere and perhaps more introverted aesthetic.

But it is all part of the BBC’s successful policy of broadening the repertory and outreaching to wider audiences. The concerts are generously accessible. Promenade tickets allow access for less than US $8, and season promenade passes work out at less than $5 a concert. All concerts are broadcast on BBC Radio, and some on TV as well. All are streamed on the BBC website in high quality audio which is available to UK and international audiences for up to 30 days after each performance.

A handful of concerts remain before the present season ends on 9 September. Two are by the Vienna Philharmonic – Mahler’s Sixth Symphony on 7 September, and a Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven concert on 8 September with Emmanuel Ax on piano and Michael Tilson Thomas on the rostrum. The late night concert on 7 September features Andras Schiff playing in its entirety the first book of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. On 6 September there are two concerts – a Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich concert in the Albert Hall followed by a late night Open Ear Prom at Tate Modern featuring new music from the London Contemporary Orchestra.

So the final week illustrates the whole series – the highest possible quality in the classic repertory coupled with exciting and exploratory innovation. The Proms series is indeed unique.

–Tom Luce

Filed under: BBC Proms

John Luther Adams in Lucerne

To open its Special Event Day on Sunday 27 August, Lucerne Festival presented the Swiss premiere of Sila: The Breath of the World by John Luther Adams. I’m not able to post video of that (the video above is from the Lincoln Center premiere three years ago at Hearst Plaza), but I can report that the “JLA effect” was in full sway: the audience, some there by design, some caught by surprise and curiosity, fell under the spell of this aural mystery unfolding for nearly an hour at the Europaplatz, just between the sleek, modernist KKL concert complex and Lake Lucerne.

And today I just learned that the wonderful music writer and critic Bernd Feuchtner devised a program for the first-ever German performance of Become Ocean last year at the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, pairing JLA with Alberto Ginastera’s Popol Vuh.

Back in Seattle on 15 September, Emerald City Music will present the world premiere of JLA’s there is no one, not even the wind … Spring will meanwhile bring his latest major orchestral work, Become Desert, to be unveiled by Seattle Symphony.

More on that soon …

Filed under: John Luther Adams, Lucerne Festival

Chineke! Makes Proms Debut

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This evening is Prom 62, in which the Chineke! Orchestra makes its BBC Proms debut.
One of Chineke!’s founding cellists is Seth Parker Woods, whom I wrote about for this month’s cover issue of Strings magazine. They’ll also be playing music by George Walker for the first time on a Proms program.

link to broadcast from BBC Radio 3

Filed under: BBC Proms, George Walker, Seth Parker Woods

Patricia Kopatchinskaja in Lucerne

More musical revelations at Lucerne Festival: thrilling Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 featuring Patricia Kopatchinskaja in an unimprovable program of Bartók and Haydn by Mahler Chamber Orchestra led by the impeccable François-Xaver Roth.
The Haydn (Symphonies 22 and 96) was sleek and proto-Modernist in Roth’s interpretation, overflowing in invention and brought to life by the exquisitely fine-tuned playing of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The Bartók Second — nicely complemented by the Dance Suite — spurred all Kopatchinskaja has to give: from her feistiest, most earth-rooted playing to star-drunk lyricism.

And then there was a post-concert treat in the “Interval,” from Kopatchinskaja plus her parents (dad Viktor on cimbalom and mom Emilia playing violin), with Venezuelan double-bassist Johane Gonzales: incisive Kúrtag and wonderful folk music arrangements.

Last night brought out still another side of Kopatchinskaja’s all-embracing artistry, in a Late Night concert with the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra led by Matthias Pintscher.

It’s clear that the Moldovan soloist regards Ligeti’s Violin Concerto as one of the ultimate masterpieces of the repertoire. Hearing her play it, you feel this is the only music in the world that matters, a world within world of where the concept of  virtuosity itself is reimagined from the ground up.

Kopatchinskaja is the perfect violinist to advocate Ligeti’s wildly imaginative ideas, but also the formal ingenuity and, yes, melodic grace of this score. She also brought out the best from the incredibly gifted young Academy musicians. I can’t wait to hear the full ensemble shine in Monday’s all-Cerha concert.

The program also included fascinating performances of composer-in-residence Michel van der Aa’s Hysteresis for clarinet, ensemble, and tape, with Martin Adámek  as the soloist and Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, with pianist Dimitri Vassilakis.

Filed under: Bartók, Haydn, Ligeti, Lucerne Festival, violinists

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