Monday, September 22, 2008

All-Bernstein...and More

The Labeques (photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

San Francisco Symphony
Carnegie Hall, September 24-26, 2008

Ebersole (photo: Melanie Dunea)

When Carnegie Hall opens its 118th season on September 24, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony plays an all-Leonard Bernstein program in a concert that also kicks off this fall’s Bernstein Festival, The Best of All Possible Worlds, a co-presentation of Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic, in honor of what would have been the beloved composer-conductor’s 90th birthday. On the program are selections from his greatest scores like On the Town and West Side Story, along with songs from A Quiet Place and Fancy Free; soloists are singers Dawn Upshaw, Thomas Hampson, and Christine Ebersole, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Following the gala evening, Bernstein protégé Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco musicians stay in town for two more Carnegie concerts: on September 25, they perform Gyorgy Ligeti’s Lontano, Francois Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos (soloists are the sister team of Katia and Marielle Labèque) and Sergei Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony, and on September 26, it’s Oliver Knussen’s 3rd Symphony and Beethoven’s towering Choral Symphony, featuring soprano Erin Wall, mezzo Kendall Gladen, tenor Garrett Sorenson, bass Alastair Miles, and the New York Choral Artists.

Two of the artists performing in these concerts recently discussed performing at Carnegie Hall. First up, Christine Ebersole, Best Actress Tony Award winner for her transcendent performance in Grey Gardens and part of the Opening Night Gala.

Kevin Filipski: How did you get involved with the Carnegie Hall Opening Night?
Christine Ebersole: Simply, they asked me to do it, and I was thrilled to say “yes.” I’ve never worked with Michael Tilson Thomas before, although I’ve done a concert of Bernstein’s music with the Boston Pops, when I sang “Duet for One,” “I Can Cook Too”–which I’m also singing at Carnegie–and songs from Candide and West Side Story.

KF: What makes Bernstein’s music such a joy to sing?
CE: “I Can Cook Too” is a song that Nancy Walker made famous in the original Broadway run of On the Town–it’s just a very fun tune to sing. Bernstein’s music is pretty spectacular. The best way to describe it is that it’s very sumptuous. It’s remarkable in its complexity yet it’s also melodic–and it gives you goosebumps just being in the midst of it, whether it’s West Side Story, Candide or On the Town. It’s all wonderful!

TSQ: Have you sung at Carnegie Hall before?
CE: Of course! I sang during a 100th anniversary concert for Ira Gershwin–I did “Saga of Jenny,” a favoite of mine. I also sang with the New York Pops: it was a song that Kathie Lee Gifford wrote for a musical she did. You know what they say, right? “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” I say, “Just turn right on 57th Street.” I’m always thrilled to sing there, are you kidding? It’ll be a really wonderful evening.


French pianist Katia Labèque (who performs the Poulenc Concerto with sister Marielle on September 25) spoke about playing music for two pianos with her sister for three decades–and in particular the Poulenc Concerto.

KF: How do you and your sister approach playing the Poulenc concerto?
Katia Labèque: We love it–it’s a wonderful concerto to play. Poulenc’s work is amazing because he created his own signature by alluding to other composers in his own music. When you hear this concerto, it doesn’t always sound like what people think of when they think of his music. It’s very charming, of course, with incredible melodies, but it also has a strong, violent and intense streak. Poulenc’s music has definitely not been understood, and he took his time before he finally decided to compose this concerto. My sister and I initially dismissed Poulenc as being too light, but then we started to read what he wrote about the piece and gave it a closer listen. And know we know–it’s simply a fantastic piece.

KF: Your niche is two-piano works, which isn’t very large. What other works do you perform together, and do you commission new works as well?
KL: (Czech composer) Bohuslav Martinu wrote a fantastic concerto, and there’s also works by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens and Berio, along with the concertos by Poulenc and Martinu. It’s true that there’s a limited repertoire, but that’s going to change after many years of playing together. Finally next season, we will have three new concertos to play: we’re doing a world premiere by Louis Andriessen, Osvaldo Golijov is working on an arrangement of his Pasion as a suite for two pianos and orchestra, and Spanish composer Joan Albert Amargos is writing a new concerto for us also.

KF: You’ve had a long professional relationship with Michael Tilson Thomas, who’s renowned for his interesting concert programs, including the evening you’re playing, when he’s pairing the Poulenc concerto with more 20th century music by Ligeti and Prokofiev.
KL: Yes, we go back with him many years. He always gives good musical contrasts in his programs, and I like to have the most diversity possible. It would be nice to hear all-Beethoven concerts–but I like to hear programs based on contrast. And he has always been very good at that.

KF: How special is performing at Carnegie Hall?
KL: It’s always a joy to play there. Every time we come back, it’s the same emotions–you can’t forget the great artists who have played there–our musical heroes who paved the way for us as musicians. It’s always magical to perform music you love with musicians you love on that stage.

KF: Talk about the record company you and your sister have created, KML Records.
KL: I don’t consider myself a record executive, but we’ve always liked the production aspects of recording. And now we are in the position to decide both what works and what musicians we can record with. The initial idea was to produce our own music, and also do what we want when we want. For many years, we’ve been with several other companies, but in the past year since we’ve had our company, we’ve made a half-dozen recordings already!

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