Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit in Rome

Auditorium Parco della Musica - 10 April, 2014

Liquid Spirit CD autographed by Gregory Porter in Rome
When I first heard Gregory Porter singing Be Good on YouTube I fell in love with his voice in a heartbeat. While I was born too late to see Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye or Ray Charles perform on stage, I now feel truly privileged to have seen Gregory Porter – whose own jazz-meets-soul voice seems to combine something of all three – in concert. Hearing that glorious baritone voice live on Thursday evening at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome convinced me that he may well possess the greatest voice of our time. Porter has released three albums so far, Water, Be Good, and the recent Grammy-winner Liquid Spirit, but as he opened with Painted on Canvas from his second album, it became instantly clear that these recordings, as great as they are, pale in comparison to the sheer immensity and warmth of his voice in concert.

Gregory Porter is a hugely charismatic performer. From the second this gentle giant of a man appeared on stage wearing his ubiquitous “jazz hat”, smiling in acknowledgement of the spontaneous cheer from the audience, he completely seduced us - not only with his voice, but also by his elegant stage presence. Together with his extremely talented quartet of musicians - Chip Crawford on piano, Yosuke Sato on alto sax, bassist Aaron James, and drummer Emanuel Harrold, who all performed captivating solos during the show - Porter cast a magic spell in Rome, and transformed the thousand-seater Sala Sinopoli concert hall into an intimate jazz club.

Ostensibly in Rome to promote Liquid Spirit, there were plenty of songs from this album. Presenting the title track early on in the evening, he invited the audience to “Clap your hands on the two and the four and if you want to wiggle in your seats, that would be okay too...” . Rome audiences are some of the most enthusiastic clappers-along I’ve ever known, and indeed this proved a sure fire way of ratcheting up the atmosphere to a peak of enthusiasm that never seemed to diminish throughout the entire show. Rome clearly loves Gregory Porter, and he rewarded his Roman fans with an impromptu nod to Sam Cooke and a tantalizingly brief lyric from Rome wasn’t built in a day.

In such a consistently perfect performance from an artist with such an enormous range of moods, and a dextrous ability to shift across genres mixing gospel, blues, and soul influences into his jazz, it is extremely difficult to pick any single highlights. Certainly Wolfcry, which saw Porter alone on stage with only the accompaniment of Crawford on piano, was mesmerising; Lonesome Lover segued brilliantly into Hit the Road Jack and was an enormous crowd pleaser; No Love Dying, Work Song and Be Good featured impressive solos from the band; and the impassioned civil rights anthem 1960 What? with an a cappella audience singalong at the end was the perfect choice after Musical Genocide, Porter’s condemnation of disposable market-driven pop.

Back on stage for an encore after thunderous applause Porter eased the evening to a close with a lovely Real Good Hands, before greeting fans and signing autographs in the Auditorium Bookstore after the show. Getting to meet and shake hands with the man himself was the perfect end to a wonderful evening. As Nat King Cole once sang...Unforgettable.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Elegance and flair – Lang Lang plays Prokofiev in Rome

Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 1 March 2014

Fresh from sharing the stage with Metallica at the recent Grammy Awards in one of the most unlikely pairings of the ceremony, Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang was back in Rome at the weekend with the more familiar accompaniment of the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under the baton of the orchestra’s very own Sir Antonio Pappano. Certainly, the Metallica gig will do little to endear Lang Lang to music critics who abhor his showmanship – it’s hard to think of a contemporary classical musician capable of polarising critical opinion so dramatically – but there’s no denying his drawing power. For this concert at the Santa Cecilia Hall I had chosen seats behind the stage – perfect for watching Lang Lang’s hands, and noticing his constant interaction with the orchestra and conductor – and I watched amazed as the 2,800 seat hall slowly filled to sold-out capacity.

When bestselling Harry Potter author JK Rowling recently published a thriller under a pseudonym the book garnered rave reviews from critics. Reading the exaggeratedly scathing reviews of Lang Lang recordings and concerts I often wonder whether the prodigiously talented pianist should attempt a similar ruse in order to free himself from the preconceived ideas about his playing and force critics to listen without prejudice. I remain an unrepentant admirer of Lang Lang, both as a performer and as an extraordinary global ambassador for classical music. I’ve been enjoying his recent Prokofiev 3 Bartók 2 CD with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and was very much looking forward to hearing him play Prokofiev’s challenging Piano Concerto No. 3 in Rome.

Lang Lang signing CDs after concert!
If he is at all bothered by his press, it certainly didn’t show on Saturday afternoon, when a relaxed and smiling Lang Lang strolled out onto the stage, looking utterly composed, nodding his acknowledgment to the audience (including those of us seated in the rear gallery) who greeted his appearance with loud applause. And what a wonderful concert it turned out to be! Lang Lang is immensely suited to a work of such dramatic contrasts in mood, and he effortlessly shifted gears through the lyricism, wit, and melancholy mystery that the piece demands. His technical accuracy is always breathtaking, and the sheer flair and brilliance of his playing can be utterly thrilling at times, but as he enters a new, more mature phase in his virtuoso career, it quickly became clear that he is now bringing something truly poetic to the mix – this was beautiful, limpid playing.

Lang Lang’s sheer enjoyment of performing is clear, and when he returned to the stage during the thunderous applause after the concerto, we were treated to an exquisite and subtle encore of Manuel Ponce’s Intermezzo – just amazing.

The entire programme on Saturday was hugely rewarding. The afternoon opened with the debut performance by the Santa Cecilia Orchestra of Meyerbeer’s Overture from Dinorah, which included a choral part sung by the Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Unseen by the audience, the choir performed outside the rear stage gallery where I was sitting. Hearing the effect of distant voices behind me was a magical experience. The concert concluded with an exhilarating performance of Symphony No. 3 in C minor by Camille Saint-Saëns, which unusually includes a pipe organ to reinforce the orchestral sound. An immensely enjoyable afternoon!

Full programme:
Dinorah: Ouverture
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 
Symphony No. 3 in C minor 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

River Tiber at dangerously high levels

River Tiber, Castel Sant'Angelo and Ponte Sant'Angelo
1 February, 2014
Days of incessant rain have brought floods north of Rome and the swollen River Tiber has risen to dramatically high levels in the city. When the rain briefly turned to drizzle yesterday afternoon I took a stroll to Castel Sant'Angelo where the Tevere had almost reached the arches of Ponte Sant'Angelo. Later that evening the Tiber rose to almost 13 metres at high tide.

I shot this video from Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II bridge. Watch below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Spellbinding - Yuja Wang plays Prokofiev in Rome

Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 18 January 2014

Less than two months after her last appearance in Rome in the company of Leonidas Kavakos, the utterly amazing Yuja Wang was back at the Auditorium Parco della Musica on Saturday, this time under the baton of conductor Sir Antonio Pappano, musical director of the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Yuja’s recently released live recording with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has rarely left my CD player over the last few weeks, so I couldn’t wait to hear her perform Prokofiev’s colossal, yet intricate, work in Rome.

CD autographed by Yuja Wang after concert!
With her hugely charismatic personality and flamboyant sartorial choices Yuja Wang excites interest from the very second she appears on stage – her skintight dresses and stiletto heels inevitably provoke gasps – but it is ultimately the breathtaking brilliance of her pianism that leaves her audiences bedazzled. On Saturday afternoon she appeared to achieve the impossible, and to trump even herself, in a performance of mesmerising artistry that held the Rome concert-goers utterly captivated. Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto is a notoriously complex work, unrelenting in the physical demands it makes on the soloist, with absolutely no respite for the pianist at any point. The cadenza during the opening movement alone is a terrifying beast clocking in at six minutes in length, executed by Yuja with an enthralling lyricism infused with pummeling menace. Throughout this enigmatic and fantastical concerto she was given marvellous support by Pappano and the orchestra – I particularly loved the complicity of orchestra and soloist during the Intermezzo, which managed to be sinister, threatening and playful all at once.

It was an exhilarating performance of virtuoso technical brilliance, played fearlessly by one of the most talented young concert pianists in the world today. The applause was thunderous and Yuja was called back out for four curtain calls. There was an audible sigh of fleeting disappointment when it became clear that there would be no encore, but after such a formidable performance, it was clear that Yuja had given us her all. Stunning.

The evening was rounded out after the intermission by the melancholy elegance of Brahms Symphony No. 2. A greater contrast would be hard to find, but it acted beautifully as a virtual decompression chamber after Yuja’s electrifying Prokofiev.

Full programme:
Symphony No. 59 “Fire”
Piano Concerto No. 2
Symphony No. 2

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