Sunday, May 20, 2018

Volksoper Wien – Offenbach’s Hoffmanns Erzahlungen. May 18, 2018.

Volksoper Wien.  Galerie Rechts (Seat 5-18, 44 euros).

Story.  See previous post.

Gerrit Priessnitz – conductor.  Hoffmann – Vincent Schirrmacher, Die Muse/Niklaus – Juliette Mars, Olympia – Sophia Theodorides, Antonia – Anja-Nina Bahrmann, Giulietta – Kristiane Kaiser, Stella – Ursula Pfitzner, Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr. Mirakel/Dapertutto – Josef Wagner.

Poster describing tonight's cast and creative team.

Vienna State Opera evidently has a little sibling called People’s Opera, so we decided to give this a try, making the Tales of Hoffmann our sixth opera on this trip, and our seventh musical event.

The website for the opera said the show would be done in German and French, and that there would be German (only) surtitles.  A bit of a worry, but we thought we should know enough about the music, and that the story is simply a retelling of three of Hoffmann’s failed love experiences.  How difficult can it be?  On top of that, Shirley and I each had a year of German in college … Bottom line, while we clearly knew what story was being told at any moment, there was really no way to get the gist of the action.  One year of German 30 odd years ago?  No use. What was to me most surprising was that there were only a few tunes that I remember well: Olympia’s song, and the opening theme to the Giulietta segment came readily to mind.

Volksoper stages more than operas.  Here they are clearly doing the Wizard of Oz.

Overall it was an enjoyable experience.  For many reasons - including language, length of opera at 3:45 hours, and this being the seventh concert in 10 days – we were slightly overwhelmed.

Our seats were in the middle of the Galerie, the highest level in the theater.  The sound was generally so good that I wonder if there is some sort of enhancement system in place.

Schirrmacher looked very Asian – he is equal parts British, Chinese, Japaneses, and Mongolian – and has lived in Vienna for a while.  He had to sing against several “leading ladies” and did very well.  The costumes were a bit humorous.  Olympia the robot had a wide hemmed dress which she opened up at some point to show her “legs” which could be contorted in different ways.  Half of Antonia’s dress was painted as a skeleton which extended to part of her face – she was on the verge of dying, afterall.  For the gaudy scenes, women were in flesh-colored body suits.  Mad scientists and the like looked their parts with wired headgear and very long fingers.  Given the undoubtedly low budget they had to work with, the set designers did a credible job of creating believable scenes for the various acts.  The Met production we saw last year may have been more intricate, but I don’t think it had a lot over tonight’s production.

Schirrmacher taking a bow.  Behind him are Olympia, Giulietta, the conductor, the Muse, and Antonia (notice the half-skeleton dress and make-up.)

The Hoffmann in this poster looks nothing like Schirrmacher.

There was considerable “stand-alone” orchestra music, which was well-performed.  Again it sounded so loud that I wondered if it was sound enhanced.

The posters on this opera had a bearded western-looking gentleman in the role.  I wonder if Schirrmacher was a last-minute substitute.

The idea behind a “Volksoper” makes sense, and given the relatively inexpensive tickets seems to be realized to a certain extent.  We noticed many young people (teenagers) in our section, a phenomenon unthinkable in the US.  However, the availability of only German surtitles makes the show of only limited to tourists. I wonder if any thought has been given to making this more accessible to people who don’t speak German. One argument against it is probably they don’t want this to be like Vienna State Opera, but tourists will drive up the ticket prices, or make tickets more difficult to get.

Getting to the opera house was easy enough, although CS – who was on his own taking photographs in the city – went to Volkstheatre instead.  He eventually realized it was the wrong place and got to Volksoper about 10 minutes late, again a testament to the efficient transportation system.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Wiener Symphoniker – Manfred Honeck, conductor; Igor Levit, piano. May 17, 2018.

Grosser Musikvereinssaal, Vienna.  Balkon-Mitte (Seat 4-10, 58 euros).

Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 5 in E major, op. 73 by Beethoven.
Symphony No. 5, op. 47 by Shostokovich.


 While wandering around Vienna after our visit to the State Opera, we came upon this poster and recognized Musikverein and Honeck.  At first I was confused as I thought the Vienna Philharmonic season was already over by now, then we realized that it was the Vienna Symphony that would be playing.  That didn’t deter us, and we bought tickets to this concert.  Beethoven’s Emperor, played in Musikverein, what could possibly go wrong.

And nothing did. Overall, we were very happy to be able to make it to this concert.  It was quite well attended, and people seemed to dress much more casually than they do for operas (in any of the three cities we have visited.)

 Waiting for the concert to begin.

In case one wonders why in the ceiling paintings there are these women holding severed heads, they are muses of drama holding masks.

The Emperor concerto is always a crowd pleaser if it is competently played, and tonight was no exception.  While our seats were in the third row of the balcony, the view was surprisingly restricted given people sitting directly in front of us, and each tier of seats was raised only slightly from the tier in front.  Every now and then we could catch a glimpse of the young (31-year old) Levit working away at the piano.  He overpedalled a bit for our taste, but his playing was generally fluid and took the audience on a nice journey through Beethoven’s different moods.

Igor Levit after performing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto; Honeck acknowledging the orchestra members.

For encore he played a simple piece (Bach two-part invention?) probable to showcase his chamber music techniques.  Beyond appreciating the contrpuntal lines I couldn’t tell how well it was played.

I must have heard the Shostakovich a few times before as it sounded quite familiar.  Honeck brought out great contrast in the orchestra, and the orchestra seemed to respond well to his direction.  He was able to garner a huge dynamic range from the ensemble, except during the quiet moments the creaking caused by the seats in the house was annoying; even I felt embarrassed.

A much larger orchestra was used for the Shostakovich.  There were quite a few audience seats in the left-rear section of the orchestra.

The horns sounded tentative in the Beethoven piece, but here they were steady and robust.  Both the concertmaster and the flute had some solo lines, and they both discharged them confidently.

The applause was thunderous, and Honeck must have come out to acknowledge the audience four or five times.

This concert was not in our original plans for the trip, but we were happy to encounter this “bonus event.”

Wiener Staatsoper – Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. May 16, 2018.

Vienna State Opera, Balkon HalB Mitte Links (Seat 2-28, 68 euros).

Story.  See previous post.  In the telling of the story tonight, the scheme to deceive Pasquale was much more in evidence.

Program as posted on walls at Vienna State Opera house.

Conductor – Frederic Chaslin.  Don Pasquale – Roberto De Candia, Ernesto – Antonino Siragua, Malatesta – Adam Placherka, Norina – Danielle de Niese.

This was the last of the five operas we would see during this European trip.  They came fast and furious during the past week, and I have been having trouble keeping up with the writeups, more because my impression of one can easily be confused with that of a later one.  So I am trying to record my observations as quickly as possible.

If La Scala is known for its rich history, and the number of operas that saw their premiere there, then Vienna State is known for the number of operas it stages every year (they may do over 300 shows a year, if memory of my tour serves), and that the venue is very popular with tourists.

Our seats tonight certainly didn’t compare at all with what we had for the prior four concerts.  We didn’t have a good view of the right front part of the stage (from singers’ perspective), and much of the action – it felt like most of the action – took place there.  So that detracted from a full experience.  Not far from our seats stood the “standing room only” crowd.

The curtain was raised a few minutes before the performance, with the orchestra seated.

The other problem is the general lack of vested emotions in a comedy.  Having said that, I thought they did a good job of the comedic aspects of the plot.  This was the third time I saw the opera, and I thought this was the funniest.  Usually the “funny” either doesn’t take with me, or becomes “old hat” after I had seen it once, so this was a rare exception.

I was surprised at the low-budget stage, which put the time frame in the early 1940s, maybe, when there were rotary dial telephones.  For most of the performance diner tables were set up on stage, with a bar to the left, and a ballroom in the back.  For an inside scene a curtain was lowered and the audience was expected to fill in the mental details.  It got the job done, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether the place has fallen on hard financial times, as Don Pasquale did.

The orchestra did well, coming to the front or fading into the background as necessary.

The roles of Don Pasquale and Malatesta were sung by previously-unknown-to-me singers, and they both did well, articulating their lines.  Especially impressive was Siragua as Ernesto.  His voice was strong, and did a credible job imitating a young man in love.

The one name I had known before today was Danielle de Niese, whom I saw singing a relatively minor role at the Met (as Ariel in Jeremy Sam’s “The Enchanted Island,” in 2011.)  I remember being very impressed with her singing and had been wondering why she was not seen that often. For her to land a lead role at Vienna State is a testament to her persistence and talent, no doubt.  For tonight, her voice was strong, but that’s the only positive adjective I can think of to describe her performance.  Her voice sounded surprising grating and unrefined.  Which might well have been how the director wanted Norina to be, but nonetheless not a good reflection on her capabilities.

 The "supporting" cast at the end of the performance.

From left: De Chandia as Don Pasquale, de Niese as Norina, Siragua as Ernesto, and Placherka as Malatesta.

This was a relatively short opera.  With a start of 7:30 am, we were done at around 10 pm, which allowed us to walk around Musikverein and made a discovery about a concert … but that is a blog entry for another day …

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Teatro alla Scala – Verdi’s Aida. May 15, 2018.

Teatro alla Scala – Palco I ord. Des. (Palchi Zona 2, Palco 10, Posto 3, 240 euros.)

Story.  See previous post.


Conductor – Daniel Oren.  Aida – Krassimira Stoyanova, Radames – Fabio Sartori, Amneris – Violeta Urmana.

Let’s again start with the bottom line: With tonight’s performance, La Scala by-an-large redeemed itself.  Perhaps it was the familiarity of an opera staple, or better singers, or better seats, or more understandable staging, … or a combination of these factors.  All four of us came away thinking this was a well-performed opera.

Outside the Teatro all Scala opera house.

First about the seats.  This was one of the first events we got tickets for this trip.  La Scala puts tickets on sale two months ahead of time – those that have not been claimed by subscribers, or via other means.  By the time this concert became available, only selected seats were left, all (or most) in the expensive 240 euro category.  And they were not contiguous seats.  We ended up with posti 3’s in different boxes on different levels.  They have a good view of the stage, but there are no screens for the subtitles, which make following the story difficult.  The two French folks in front put the screens in English and Italian for our benefit, but they were difficult to read.

The singing was generally superb.  It was remarked (forget by whom) that Amneris’s voice was weak, I don’t agree, and I thought it would be wrong to overshadow the protagonist anyway.  Stoyanova has one of the sweetest voices I have encountered, and she simply sang beautifully.  While Sartori may be too heavy to act like a dashing captain, he was steady and sounded substantive.  The two kings – especially the Nubian, performed by George Gagnidze– did well, the Nubian king was convincing when he tried to get Aida to get Radames to give up military secrets.

We saw this at the Met last year (April 2017).  When I looked at my blog entry I discovered to my amusement and chagrin that both the leading ladies were in the cast, and I found out just now that Gagnidze sang the role of Amonasro.  If my words are consistent, then today’s singing was better than what happened at the Met.  I certainly don’t recall enjoying Stoyanova’s singing to this extent.  With the 2017 Met performance I complained about the singers having only a "high" volume setting; they certainly could put out captivating soft passages.

The orchestra again put in an excellent performance.

The staging is billed as done by Franco Zeffirelli but “revived by” Marco Candini.  All I can say is the props looked like a subset of what we saw at the Met.  The Met stage seems to be considerably wider and deeper than La Scala’s, so things are consequently less “grand.”  Still elaborate, and for certain scenes too busy.  Generally it worked.  The only real objection I have is the unceremonious way Radames entered the tomb.

This is curtain call at conclusion of Opera.  However, the set was also used for the famous triumphal march.

Curtain Call for the main cast and Maestro Oren.

The dancers put on dark brown/black (couldn’t quite tell) for some of the scenes.  Both Anne and I wondered if that would fly in the US.

CS and I agreed that the Met is every bit as good as what we have seen in Zurich and Milan, even though the two opera houses were built over 100 and 200 years ago, respectively.  Over the last 40 years the Met had a music director whose name it not longer mentions, but Levine has to be given much credit to bring the Met to a standard that matches or even exceeds any other opera house in the world we have seen.  That our seats at the Met are usually not nearly as good further accentuates the point.  I have read many singers are reluctant to sing at the Met, simply because the audiences are more demanding, and the size of the auditorium must also be hard on their voices.

To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if you can make it at the Met, you can make it anywhere.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Teatro alla Scala – Zandonai’s Francesco da Rimini. May 13, 2018.

Teatro alla Scala, Palcon II ord. Des. (Palchi Zone 2, Palco 13, Posto 5, 93.5 Euros).

Story.  Based on one of the encounters Dante had in Inferno, Francesca is tricked into marrying Giovanni, while she is actually in love with his brother Paolo.  The third brother Malatestino also loves Francesca.  So when he sees Paolo entering Francesca’s bedroom and stays the night, he informs Giovanni.  Giovanni tries to kill Paolo with a spear, but Francesca steps in front and is killed instead.

Conductor – Fabio Luisi;  Francesca – Maria Jose Siri, Paolo il bello – Marcelo Puente, Giovanni Io sciancato – Gabriele Viviani, Malastestino dall’Occhio – Luciano Ganci, Smaragdi (la schiava) – Idunnu Munch.

A major drive behind this trip is to see an opera in La Scala.  And I must say compared to our experience in Zurich, this was not nearly as positive.

Our seats were quite good, probably among the best in the house.  Evidently most balcony levels are occupied by boxes, with each box seating 6 people.  The boxes we were in had 4 seats at 110 euros, and one each at 93.5 and 60.5 euros.  When I booked the tickets, I saw that there were quite a few empty seats still, so I booked the first 2 and the last 2, hoping that the middle two seats wouldn’t be occupied: and the strategy worked.

Other than the top tier, all the balconies at La Scala are set up as boxes seating 5 or 6 people each.  View from our box is good for the occupiers of the first two seats, but only so-so for other seats in the box.

First the story, it is straightforward, but not the way it is told in the opera.  It didn’t help we didn’t know how to turn on the LED screens for the translations at first – I had to go ask an usher.  To complicate matters, the traditional-cum-modern design, with some liberty taken with the acting, added to my confusion.  For instance, there is this three-tier structure that is used to depict a catapult tower, and instead of catapults we have cannons.  At the end of the opera when Francesca dies, there is a spear that drops from the ceiling, and both she and Paolo lie dead on stage.  Fair enough, other than I worry the rope tying the spear may break and end up hurting someone.

One constant about the set is a statue of Francesca.  After Act I spears come out of the backstage, including her body, and they seem to lengthen in subsequent acts.  For the battle scene we have the aforementioned three-tier structure.  The prop for the scene where the lovers read from Shakespeare is a large book with pages that turn.  Also, at some point Francesca has in her hands a downed bi-plane, my guess would be to signify the disaster that is enfolding.  At the beginning there are a couple of scantily dressed ladies, perhaps to emphasize that in Dante’s book Francesca is condemned to hell for carnal pleasure.

The singing was generally okay.  It was weaker than what we heard in Zurich, but this is to be expected as La Scala is a much larger hall (2000 vs 1200 seats.)  To the extent I understood what was going on, the mood was consistent.  The only weak voice among the principals was Marcelo Puente as Paolo.  A few of the “minor” cast members did very well.  I hadn’t heard of any of the singers, evidently Jose-Siri is an up and comer in the opera world.  Fabio Luisi was the chief conductor of the Met for a few years, and we have heard him several times before.  I didn’t realize that he conducted with so much energy, and the orchestra seemed to respond well.

The "Catapult" scene with cannons.  Photo taken when singers came out for acknowledgement after Act 1.

Curtain call (video) at the conclusion of the performance.  Notice the spears coming out of the statue, and the plane held in her left hand.  Her right hand is holding a book.

I am writing this a couple of days later, and in a couple of hours I will be seeing Aida.  My hope is that the opera staple will help improve my general impression of this Opera house.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Opernhaus Zurich – Massenet’s Werther. May 10, 2018.

Hauptbuhne Opernhaus, Zurich.  Parquet Left (Seat 10-11, CHF 75).

Story.  See previous post.

Lorenzo Viotti – conductor.  Werther – Piotr Beczala, Charlotte – Anaik Morel, Sophie – Melissa Petit, Albert – Andrei Bondarenko, Le Baili – Cheyne Davidson, Schmidt – Martin Zysset, Johann – Yuriy Tsiple, Brahlmann – Stanislav Vorobyov, Kathchen – Soyoung Lee.

Other artists: Children’s Chorus of Opera Zurich.

Program for Werther.

This was the second of our five operas.  It appears both the Zurich and the Vienna State Opera companies designated some of the performances for the season as “discount events.”  When I first looked into this opera (around January) I couldn’t get the link for tickets to respond.  Around April 10 that link worked, and seats that cost over CHF 200 for other performances cost only CHF 75 for this one.  Our seats in Row 10 in the Orchestra section felt even more “intimate” than last night’s performance.

Again, the singers put in excellent performances.  I saw Beczala only one time as Rodolfo in Luisa Miller, earlier this season, and was very impressed with his singing.  In the smaller auditorium he sounded even better.  All other singers were new to me, and they again did very well.  As Charlotte, Morel conveyed how she was torn between duty and love in a sympathetic manner.  Petit as Sophie was innocent, not aware of the issues that were consuming the other characters.  There were about six children in the Bailiff’s family, and they nailed the songs they sang at the beginning of the opera.  Albert, Charlotte fiancĂ© and later husband, was portrayed well by Bondarenko. All the other voices came through clearly, in no small part due to the volume of the auditorium, no doubt.  I can understand why some singers prefer these smaller European opera houses: they can get through to the audience much easier.  That the smaller halls are easier on the voices is supported by the shorter intermissions (they lasted about 25 minutes today and last night.)

We saw this opera at the Met with Jonas Kaufman as Werther and Sophie Koch as Charlotte.  From what I remember of the opera, the emotion built up slowly and didn’t become frantic until the last act.  Here things for Werther unraveled very quickly as soon as he found out Charlotte was engaged.  As a result, the emotional levels were very high for most of the opera, which, in my opinion, was difficult to sustain.  It was indeed to Beczala’s credit that he delivered a moving performance of “Pourquoi me reveiller” with an admirable dynamic range.

If I had a low opinion of the set for last night’s opera, tonight’s simply left me scratching my head.  For all the sets and scenes the same basic layout of a room was used.  All the sides, the roof, and the floor were built from ash-like (faux?) wood.  Different doors open and close as the room was repurposed for different acts.  There were several instances where extras were left frozen (i.e., not moving) while the singer(s) carried on.  There was a scene where several old-looking people (as far as I could tell, they were old) were put on stage, and one old couple was in the background during the death scene.  I have no idea why it was necessary to use these actors, perhaps to describe the love between Charlotte and Werther would last a long time?  That death did not diminish that love?  No matter what reason I could give, it didn’t work.  One child was in a wheelchair.

I just read through my writeup of the Met Werther, which we saw in 2014.  I was quite critical of that performance, but pointed out how I liked the cleverly designed sets, and that Kaufman and Koch were good.  I didn’t have to read the review to remember I didn’t like the death scene, probably muttering to myself “please die already” as the duet dragged on.  Today’s Werther found enough energy to stand up to do the singing, which made the scene actually quite bearable, and enjoyable to the extent death scenes can be enjoyed.  For the background (seen through the open windows and doors) stars and the earth were projected as background, again puzzling.

Even without the better death scene, I would have rated tonight’s performance better than the Met one.  The passage of time probably eroded some of the negativity I associated with the Met performance.

Oh, and there was this clock on the wall.  It would speed up a few hours to denote evening progressing into night, and the clock case served as the gun storage cabinet.  Not as puzzling as the clock last night, but still somewhat so.  It just occurred to me: the Swiss are known for their timepieces, so they don’t need much reason to put in a time piece of some kind.

Curtain Call.  This room is the set for all the acts.  Notice the old couple (3rd and 4th from left).  The young conductor is flanked by Morel and Bezcala.

After the curtain call, some person came on stage and said a lot of things in German, the gist of which was both the conductor Viotti and the tenor Beczala won recent awards in London as "artists of the year."  Viotti looked very young (born in 1990) and this was his debut series at the Zurich opera house.  And it appears Beczala built his reputation at the Zurich Opera.

It was around 5 pm when we got out of the Opera House.  The Yangs and we went and had a quick dinner at Nordsee in the main train station.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Opernhaus Zurich – Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. May 9, 2018.

Hauptbuhne (Mainstage) Opernhaus, Zurich, Switzerland.  Parkettgalerie rechts (Seat 4-18, CHF 95).

Story.  See previous post.

Enrique Mazzola – Conductor; Elisabetta I – Serena Farnocchia, Maria Stuarda – Diana Damrau, Roberto, Graf von Leicester – Pavol Breslik, Giorgio Talbot – Nicolas Teste, Lord Guglielmo Cecil – Andrzej Filonczyk, Anna Kennedy – Hamida Kristoffersen.

There is no available English programs.  These are screenshots about the program from the Opera House's website.

The Yangs and we are on a 3-city 5-opera trip, we left Newark yesterday at 6:30 pm and arrived at Zurich this morning.  We managed a nap in the afternoon, so were all in good shape for the evening.

We are going to another one tomorrow, so I just wanted to jot down some thoughts I have.

The opera building, with its black roof and white walls, sits on the East Bank of the Limmat River.  It is surprisingly small, seating about 1200 (per Wikipedia), and there are so many columns at our level that many seats have a blocked or claustrophobic view of the stage.  The orchestra pit is small, so was the size of the orchestra for tonight – two double basses, for instance.  Our seat in the last row (of 4) have an okay view, but the surtitles are projected high above the action.  All four of us agreed it was an advantage that we were not tall and speak English (not German, as those lines were projected above the English).

Anne took this panoramic view of the Opera House.

On the other hand, the small auditorium made the experience intimate (my word) or chamber-music-like (Chungshu’s).  All the singers did well.  While Farnocchia’s voice may not be as refined as Damrau’s, she acquitted herself well when she led off the entire opera with a rather long scene, basically giving the audience an introduction to the story.  Damrau made exquisite use of her ability to hold the crowd with her soft pleas, and brought back memories of her as Queen of the Night when she cursed out Elizabeth.  The choir as Mary’s supporters sang sadly as they lamented the fate that was to befall Mary. The orchestra enhanced the mood appropriately, from hope to hatred, from fear to resignation.

Curtain call, with Mazzola taking a bow.  The saying in the back translates to "May he ashamed who thinks badly of it," not sure I understand its relationship to the opera.

The staging was puzzling to me.  Take the costumes, for instance.  Many dresses were traditional, but the men simply wore suits and ties, for the most part.  The forest where Mary and Elizabeth had their encounter was a small patch of grass with some bushes moved in for the purpose.  The backdrop is a curved wall (prison perhaps) that was sometimes covered by a curtain.  Elizabeth’s throne sits on a sideways horse, which she also rode to the “forest.”  For a scene there were these “skeletons” (people with masks on) that initially hid behind a long sofa. To top it all of, for the last scene there was a wall clock that moved, but wasn’t set to the right time.  That, together with Cecil’s black costume and his multiple “attempts” to kill Mary, reminded me of Father Time in the La Traviata we saw a few years ago.

When a lady with red hair (with orange hues) appeared as the curtain drew open, I thought she was Mary (a Scot, after all).  When she then showed up with simply long red hair, I was puzzled as she was clearly singing the role of Elizabeth.  Then Damrau came out with blonde hair, and I was sure she sang Mary.  To prepare for her execution, Elizabeth’s hair was cut.  She did took off her black dress to reveal a red dress.  As to the execution, the lights went out as Cecil was lowering an axe on her.

[Note added 5/10: One effect I admired was the use of spotlights to cast shadows of a few people onto the background.  It added a certain sense of doom, and it was certainly interesting to decide whose shadows were being projected at any given time.  Also, the Program Book - in German - is available on line in its entirety.  Browsing through it I was reminded how ridiculous the hunt scene looked, with people wearing antlers to act the role of game.]

This was a great start to our trip.  We had great weather, the singing was great, and the story was simple enough for our tired bodies and mind.

Monday, May 07, 2018

New Jersey Symphony – Dima Slobodeniouk, conductor; Nin Feng, violin. May 5, 2018.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC, Newark, NJ.  Orchestra (Seat Q101, $15).

Isola (2007) by Fagerlund (b 1972).
Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (1844, rev. 1845) by Mendelssohn (1809-1847).
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82 (1915, rev. 1916, 1919) by Sibelius (1865-1957).

One of my reactions to yesterday’s New York Phil concert was that it was a “pops” concert with a serious composition wedged in.  For tonight, the reaction was quite the opposite, two serious compositions sandwiching in a showpiece.

Sebastian Fagerlund is a young Finnish composer who has built quite a reputation for himself, such as being the composer-in-residence of the Royal Concertgeouw Orchestra last season.  This composition is inspired by Seili Island of Finland.  It is beautiful – rugged rocky beautiful, per the conductor – but has a dark history as a leper colony in the middle ages where lepers were sent to fend for themselves and presumably die, and as the location for a mental hospital until 1962.  The music is supposed to reflect this dichotomy.  The program notes calls this a tone poem, but the conductor insists there is no program to the music except for the inspiration.

Fagerlund’s music is characterized as “a fusion of post-impressionism and modernism, with a dash of minimalism.  He often juxtaposes meditative, trance-like stasis with jagged rhythms.” Whenever I see “minimalism” I think – rightly or wrongly – Philip Glass.  In Fagerlund’s case, there were many occasions where different simple not-quite tonal motif of a few notes were repeated again and again, and other “stuff” evolved and revolved around these motifs.  I heard a lot of darkness, not much beauty (well, perhaps in Finland beauty and sunny are different things.)  The music ended softly, if I recall correctly.

This was our first encounter with Ning Feng, a young Chinese violinist who now lives in Germany.  The Mendelssohn violin concerto is a tricky one to perform, not so much for its difficulty – and it is difficult enough – but more for how one interprets it.  Feng pulled off the technical part, and I was particularly impressed by how he managed to keep the bow glued to the strings, but I am not sure the performance was enjoyable beyond that.  Per his website, he plays on a Stradivarius, but some passages didn’t quite come through.  In his defense, he was playing against a large orchestra.

Ning Feng after performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto.

When he returned to the stage, he lamented to the audience the limited solo violin repertoire, and asked the audience whether it should be Bach or Paganini.  He ended up playing the latter’s Caprice No. 24.  While impressive, it wasn’t as clean as one could imagine, and I certainly won’t call it perfect, as I called Hadelich’s encore a few years ago.

I am only somewhat familiar with Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5, so I appreciated the description I found in the Program Notes.  The music is challenging to pull off.  As examples: for the strings, the use of tremolos makes it difficult to sound precise; the horns have to hit many ascending and descending intervals (4ths, 5ths, and 6ths) in the last movement, and it is difficult to get the notes perfectly righ – and no safety in numbers!  Going over my blog, I have heard this a few times already, and each time I said/implied that I needed to hear this some more to fully appreciate it.  Alas, tonight is no exception.

Slobodeniouk after Sibelius's Symphony No. 5.

We stopped by Hoboken before heading out to Newark.  Dinner was at Wok to Walk, a small fast-food restaurants a couple of blocks from NJPAC.