Saturday, December 31, 2005

Boston Ballet - Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker". 12/30/2005

Opera House, Boston, MA. Orchestra, Seat S2.

I do not know ballet. I can probably count the number of times I have seen a ballet performance on the fingers of one hand, and that includes TV programs. The two live performances I had seen before tonight’s were in St. Petersburg in the mid-1990s (perhaps it was the Kirov at the Mariinsky Theatre?) and in New Haven last year. Since last year’s was also The Nutcracker, there is a family Christmas tradition in the making.

The Opera House in Boston is quite an impressive building. The auditorium is quite large, with a huge upper level. It makes the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City look downright pedestrian. It is used for musicals also, which is unheard of at the Met. (Draw your own conclusions.)

Tonight’s performance was the last of 40 or so performances by the Boston Ballet, one can imagine they had to be a bit tired. I am sure they rotated among their principal dancers and soloists, so the wear and tear on the dancers should not be too bad. Still, doing the same program several times a week for over a month required tremendous dedication from the artists.

The story of The Nutcracker is simple. It begins with a Christmas party in Germany where a magician shows up, gives a toy soldier as a gift to Clara, who then falls asleep and is transported to a magical world with the soldier-turned-prince. In Act II the two sit in a big chair and different dances are performed; at the end Clara is transported back. Somewhat like The Wizard of Oz, except not as scary. Due to a fight scene involving many rats (mice?), the show is not recommended for children under 4. I was startled during intermission when the mouse king tapped me on my shoulder, but he left before I could say hello so one of his many admirers could have her picture taken with him.

The sets were elaborate and well-done. The snowfall was heavy (the program notes said it cost $16,000 to make). Clara was transported into the magical world with a balloon rather than the usual mundane sleigh. The Christmas tree that grew huge looked real. It reminded me of a Broadway show with well-designed stage sets.

The dancers were all quite impressive. I need to learn something about ballet techniques; before I do, I must say the athleticism, control, and artistry involved were amazing. The two principal dancers were particularly impressive, although there was a wobble now and then. The majority of Boston Ballet’s principal and soloist dancers are foreign born, which speaks either to the United States as being a place that attracts the best talents, or that the training system in the US is not producing enough world-class dancers; I wonder what it is.

I do know something about the music. The orchestra’s performance was a great disappointment. At first I wasn’t sure whether it was a live orchestra or a bad tape being played. They used microphones to pick up the sound from the orchestra, which was seated too low in the pit, and the sound system sounded as if it consisted of only two speakers. The playing was sloppy and muddled. The Nutcracker isn’t particularly difficult to do, which added to the puzzlement.

Much credit is due the dancers in that quite often I was so mesmerized with their performance that I forgot about the pitiful noise coming out from the tinny speakers. Boston Ballet should enforce their late seating policy, this gentleman in the next row came in late for both Acts, and left and returned during the first Act.

In mid-March both the Swan Lake and the Sleeping Beauty will be performed in Boston. We are seriously thinking of coming back to see them.

Friday, December 30, 2005

The Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra – Bruce Hangen, conductor; The von Trapp Children. 12/28/2005.

Symphony Hall, Boston, MA; First Balcony, Seat C43.


  1. A Christmas Festival arr. Anderson/Courage; Hanukkah Song; Carol of the Drum by Davis-Wright; Farandole from L’Arlesienne by Bizet; Selections from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky.
  2. The von Trapp Children
  3. Frosty All the Way arr. Sebesky; The Toy Trumpet by Scott; Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, from Chauve Souris by Jessel-Gould; Christmas Cajun-Style arr. Hollenbeck; A Merry Little Sing-Along arr Reisman.

I like Christmas music, sacred or secular. I like the music quiet, boisterous, joyous, nostalgic, simple, complex, reverent, or whatever. The religious aspect is important, and peace on earth isn’t such a bad idea either.

This holiday season Anne and I came up to Boston to stay at our son’s new place, and our daughter stayed with us for a few days also. We decided at the last minute to see the Boston Pops play Christmas music. The von Trapp children, great-grand children of the Captain von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame, would be singing also.

The Boston Symphony Hall is a rather small concert hall, and has a very ornate interior. The ceilings are very high, and the side walls are lined with statues. For Pops concerts, the have tables set up at the orchestra level so patrons can order food and drink during the concert. Somehow this does not seem very distracting, although they do ask the audience to turn off their cell phones. We were seated in the balcony with a near complete view of the stage. The attendance was good, and the crowd was in a festive mood.

The first piece was a medley of familiar Christmas carols and songs. It also defined how the evening was going to be like. The Pops orchestra is competent, but none of the evening’s pieces was technically or musically challenging, and I suspect people go to Pops concerts to enjoy themselves more than for a cultural experience anyway. They also threw in a Hanukkah song as this is one of the rare years that Christmas and Hanukkah fall on the same day. I couldn’t make out any harmonica-like passage in the story where Monica got a harmonica for Hanukkah. The first part of the program ended with a few selections from the Nutcracker Suite; the technical challenges actually highlighted some of the inadequacies of the orchestra (precision, clarity, balance).

Thanks mostly to Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music is known and loved throughout the world. Four of Captain von Trapp’s great grandchildren were on hand to sing selections from the musical and other songs. The children consisted of three girls Amanda (14), Melanie (15), and Sophie (17); and Justin (11). I was surprised that they spoke English without an Austrian accent (think Governor of California) until they said they lived in Montana. The girls were wearing dresses worn by “the originals” with some buttons over 100 years old.

I didn’t know what to expect of the singing. My first reaction was the singing genes of the great grandfather were diluted considerably after several generations, then I realized it was the singing of the actors in the movie that we remember. I don’t know how well Captain von Trapp sang. The songs they sang were enjoyable enough, and the one from Annie Oakley (“Anything you can do, I can do better”) was particularly delightful. Nonetheless, as my daughter pointed out, since these children must have voice coaches and perform all over the world, their performance was somewhat disappointing. I am sure the holiday spirit accounted for much of the enthusiastic applause from the audience.

The last part of the program was again orchestral pieces. “The Toy Trumpet” by Scott was quite interesting. The program ended with a sing-along of holiday melodies (mostly “a-religious”); and the von Trapp children returned to sing the “Goodbye Song.”

An evening that lived up to my modest expectations.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Newton Community Chorus – Richard Travers, Music Director. 12/17/2005.

Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Newton, MA

Lesley Chen, Concertmaster; Janet Poisson, Soprano; Melinda Biocchi, Alto; Noah van Niel, Tenor; Stephen Mumbert, Baritone.


Handel’s Messiah, Part I & the Hallelujah Chorus

We went to this concert because our daughter – she has lived in the Boston area since August - sings in the chorus. We didn’t quite know what to expect. The choruses in the oratorio are challenging, but are quite doable with reasonably competent singers. The orchestral part is also within grasp of a good community orchestra. Perhaps the most difficult task is to find soloists whose voices work well with the orchestra.

The church is huge and impressive; its cathedral ceilings reminded me of some European churches I have visited. The interior is bright, no doubt helped by the many lights installed in the ceiling and the light color paint. Mosaics of the apostles adorn the high arches supporting the ceiling. It must seat well over 1000 people; a few hundred people attended the concert, and generally lent a festive atmosphere to the evening.

By and large this was a well performed concert, if one makes allowances for this being a community chorus. The church’s acoustics worked quite well for the orchestra and for the chorus. We were seated towards the back, but still could hear very well. The sopranos had to reach a high B-flat, a challenge for most people. They by-and-large managed the high notes quite well, although at times the sound was strained. The many 16th note runs were done quite well, although they were a little on the slow side. The orchestra had a nice sound to it, and once it settled down, played with precision.

There were some major shortcomings, though. The chorus’s individual sections were quite competent, but the soprano voices dominated the other three parts, and the tenors and basses were particularly weak. Many amateur choruses don’t have enough male voices to balance the female ones, and the NCC appears to suffer from this problem. The conductor did his job rather mechanically, often evoking the image of a marching band leader. With an amateur chorus, the conductor could help out a lot by providing timely lead-ins. This was particularly evident in “For unto Us a Child is Born.” The tenors and basses could have used more help. My daughter told me he appeared to be better with the orchestra, although I didn’t notice it. He provided precise cues for the endings of phrases, though.

The first two solos were done by the tenor. My impression was while his voice was good and projected well, it lacked maturity and didn’t do justice to the air “Every Valley”. I then read the program notes and found out he must be only around 20 years old! Too bad for tonight’s performance these were the only two tenor pieces. The other soloists’ performances all had something to be desired: how their voices projected over the orchestra, volume, clarity, phrasing, and (especially in the case of the soprano) diction. Perhaps one should also point out these are all young people who will undoubtedly improve with more experience.

As a critic one has to conclude this concert had much to be desired. On the other hand, the more appropriate attitude is to enjoy a great choral piece by Handel during the Christmas season. And as such I enjoyed the concert very much. One could tell the chorus members performed with well-deserved pride at what they accomplished.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

New York Philharmonic – Ivan Fischer, guest conductor; Leonidas Kavakos, Violin. 12/3/2005.

Avery Fischer Hall at Lincoln Center; Second Tier, Seat DD16.


Romanian Folk Dances, BB 76 (1915; orch 1917) by Bartok (1881-1945).
L’Arbre des songes Violin Concerto (1979-85) by Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916).
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-08) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

We decided to attend this concert at the last minute since we had no plans for the rest of the evening after seeing the opera Carmen. I was not familiar with any of the pieces on the program this evening, so I was reading up on the program notes feverishly when we got into our seats. Perhaps the New York Philharmonic should consider putting up some season-appropriate music for this time of the year, but in any case, I was glad to have attended this concert. The concert hall was fuller than usual, no doubt with attendance boosted by the many tourists that are in the area during the Christmas season.

I didn’t know much about the conductor or the soloist. Fischer was born in Budapest in 1951, plays several instruments, studied in Vienna, and made his US debut with the LA Philharmonic in 1983. His current “regular” job appears to be the principal guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. He certainly impressed with the ability to conduct the Rachmaninoff symphony (which was 56 minutes long) without music. Kavakos was born in Athens and is in his late 30s. He plays the 1692 “Falmouth” Stradivarius. The violin has a nice sound but does not project as well as some of the later Strads; this would prove to be a problem with a large orchestra and the demands of the piece.

It took more time to read the program notes on Bartok’s piece than to listen to it. The piece lasted all of 7 minutes and contains 7 different folk dances. I never know what to expect with Bartok, but I didn’t expect a “traditional” symphony orchestra with the absence of a percussion section. Perhaps it’s because the dances were orchestrated from his original work for the piano. The Stick Dance (Allegro moderato) defined the folksiness of the suite (without percussion), and is followed by the Sash Dance (Allegro) which was even shorter in duration. In One Spot (Andante) spotlighted the flute which played notes of a limited range, and the Horn Dance (Moderato) had a violin (not horn!) solo by Sheryl Staples that was done quite well. Staples had quite a few solo lines this evening and they were all done superbly. The Romanian Polka (Allegro) was fast paced. The simple, pleasant suite concluded with a couple of satisfying Fast Dances (L’istesso tempo, Allegro vivace).

The program quotes Dutilleux’s description of the violin concerto “as a piece that grows somewhat like a tree, for the constant multiplication and renewal of its branches is the lyrical essence of the tree. This symbolic image, as well as the notion of a seasonal cycle, inspired my choice of L’Arbre des songes as the title of the piece.” The four movements (Freely, Quick, Slow and Broad & Animated) are linked by three interludes.

This is one of the few concerto performances where the soloists need the music. And needed it he did: he seemed to be glued to it the whole time. The piece was quite chaotic, whether by design or from lack of practice, I don’t know. But I am sure the soloist was tuning his violin out loud during the third movement, and it wasn’t part of the plan. Nonetheless it sounded as if it belonged, so out of control was that part of the piece. The timpanist was surrounded by seven drums, although I’m not sure he used them all. During the fourth movement the violin was completely overwhelmed by the orchestra for several minutes before it regained its balance. At other times I felt the violinist was playing the piece like an etude.

The violin concerto is clearly written for the virtuoso, but is it good music? The program notes evoke Van Gogh’s Road with Cypress and Star. There may be glimpses of growth of branches in the piece, but most of the time it makes one think of wild weeds. Kovakos has won Sibelius and Paganini competitions, any piece by one of those composers would have been welcome.

I didn’t remember having heard any of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonies before. I have since discovered all three of his symphonies on my iPod, I guess that still doesn’t mean I have heard it before. This symphony is quite long at close to one hour and contributes to its not being heard often in live concerts. Rachmaninoff was so wounded by the unkind reviews of his first symphony (1897) that he needed the help of daily hypnosis sessions by a physician before he would start writing again. The second symphony was completed about 10 years later, and was received enthusiastically at its Moscow debut conducted by the composer himself.

The symphony contains quite a few solo phrases by various instruments and they were all done very well. The only movement I was vaguely familiar with was the third (Adagio), although I am not sure it’s from a CD I own or it was used in a movie. In general, the symphony contains nice melodies, highlights the different orchestral instruments appropriately, and has a nice structure to it. I don’t know my musicology well enough to know if any new composition ground was broken, it sounded traditional enough, especially for the time it was written.

Fischer conducted in an animated manner, and pointed to the different orchestral sections with conviction. He seems to be able to bring out the right sounds from the orchestra, although every now and then the performance was a bit chaotic.

All things considered, it was a pleasant concert. I would still prefer “simpler” holiday fare for this time of the year though.

See also the New York Times review of an earlier performance of the concert. The reviewer obviously appreciated the Dutilleux piece much more than I did.

New York Metropolitan Opera – Bizet’s Carmen 12/3/2005.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle, Seat G105.

Conductor – Philippe Jordan; Carmen – Nancy Fabiola Herrera, Don Jose – Marcello Giordani, Escamillo – Erwin Schrott, Micaela – Ana Maria Martinez.

Story: Don Jose abandons his lover Micaela, mother, and military post to join Carmen as a bandit and smuggler. When after a while Carmen decides to go with the matador Escamillo, Don Jose stalks her and murders her outside of the bull-fighting arena.

Carmen and La Traviata (by Verdi) are two operas I would suggest to a first time opera goer. They both contain nice tunes, and the stories are easy to understand. Unfortunately both are tragedies; also, Carmen is quite long at about 3 ½ hours.

Most people think of Carmen when they think of Bizet. Indeed this is his most famous work. Bizet died at age 36, 3 months after the opening of the Opera, and never lived to see its success. Some arias were adapted from Spanish melodies, and many were Bizet’s own. In Bizet’s original work there was quite a bit of spoken dialog linking the arias together. He intended to but died before he could substitute these with recitatives. Today’s performance was the modified version, although no credit was given to Guiraud, Bizet’s friend who added the sung recitatives.

This was the third time we saw Carmen in recent years, and I still found it enjoyable. The sets were certainly interesting, and several horses, donkeys and dogs were used. The orchestra section was full for today's performance.

Micaela was introduced early in Act I. Martinez has a voice that seemed perfect for the role; the voice projected very well and had the innocence of a simple kind-hearted young woman. This character had only a small role in the original novella (by Prosper Merimee) but was a nice contrast to the “I’ll do what I please” Carmen and Don Jose. Carmen first appeared on stage after being arrested for fighting. She soon launched into the famous Haberena describing her philosophy towards love. Herrera had an excellent voice but I thought she took the arias a little too slowly. For a soprano (she also sings Violetta in La Traviata this season at Covent Garden) she has an unusually strong voice in the low registers. One of the last pieces in Act I (Seguidilla and Duet) has a catchy tune without a key (nominally in B minor). The genius of Bizet is amazing.

Act II contains the famous matador song sung by Schrott whose performance was on the weak side. Don Jose’s unaccompanied entrance song into Lillas Pastia’s Inn was also disappointing, and slightly off-key at that: this is a particularly difficult aria to do as it begins off-stage.

Acts III and IV were performed with a short 5 minute pause. Act III began with a pleasant andantino Entr’acte, but soon after that it was clear the opera was on its way to a tragic end. Micaela’s pleading only added to the feeling of impending doom. Act IV began with a festive scene at the city square outside of the bull-fighting arena and ended with Don Jose stabbing Carmen to death after she threw the ring at him.

This afternoon's performance left something to be desired, but was still a very enjoyable experience. As with many operas, the audience has to fill in many blanks to make the story come to life. Somehow there wasn’t enough time in the 2 plus hours (not counting the intermissions) to develop the story on its own.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

New York Philharmonic – Gianandrea Noseda, guest conductor; Simon Trpceski, piano. 10/22/2005.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier, Seat AA109.


Dance Suite BB 86a (1923) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (1940) by Britten (1913-76).
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

Today’s music was all from the 20th Century. I generally enjoy Rachmaninoff, mostly for the virtuosity it requires of the player. Bartok and Britten are usually not my cup of tea. I ended up enjoying the Bartok and Britten pieces, and was somewhat disappointed by how the Rachmanioff Concerto was played.

Noseda looks youngish in the various photos of him I have seen. I was seated too far back to get a good look. In any case, he started conducting professionally in the early 90s, and has conducted quite a few major orchestras. He is quite tall and towers over the orchestra. He was also conducting every beat with energy, and for the most part the orchestra responded correspondingly.

The program notes contain a good description of the Bartok piece. Bartok created the folksy themes in this Suite. The bassoon and the lower strings began the first movement (Moderato), they were soon joined by the brass and other woodwind instruments. Then the first violins began the next section. Per the notes, this movement is Arabic in character. The cellos began the second movement (Allegro molto) and the trombone glissandos added an energetic air to the movement, which is Hungarian in character. The third movement (Allegro vivace) is multi-national (Hungarian, Romanian, and Arab influences). It contained piano and percussion passages, followed by flutes and piccolos. A slight pause then brought us to the “Molto tranquillo” 4th movement, with the horns playing a major role. The violins playing slowly in the higher registers brought the movement to an end. The 5th movement (Comodo) began primitively with very limited tonal range, it then sped up, halted abruptly, and finally came to an end. The last movement (Finale: Allegro) began pleasantly and recalled parts of earlier movements, but sounded a bit fragmented. I thought the conductor’s attempt to elicit a strong timpani entrance didn’t quite succeed. In any case, after appearances by the solo viola and second violin, the piece came to a close after strong statements by the brass. It was an energetic ending that properly concluded this rather enjoyable piece.

The Britten piece has a rather interesting history. It was commissioned by Japan to celebrate the 2600th anniversary of the founding of the Mikado dynasty. How we ended up with essentially a requiem is beyond my grasp. But it stands to reason why this piece didn’t meet with great enthusiasm in Japan. Britten ended up dedicating the piece to the memory of his deceased parents. He commented on the piece in 1941; the first movement (Lacrymosa) is a slow marching lament with three main motives; the second (Dies irae) is a form of Dance of Death with various interesting motives; the last movement (Requiem aeternam) begins quietly, grows in the middle, and ends quietly on a sustained clarinet note. For the most part I could correlate the performance with the description. There are some interesting aspect to the piece. The saxophone plays an important role in it, and the harps strummed at a steady, controlled manner not often heard in other pieces. Sheryl Staples, the Principal Associate Concertmaster, didn’t project the solo part too well, though.

A combination of conductor, orchestra and music that allow me to sit through 40 or so minutes of 20th century music must be congratulated. And I enjoyed the first half.

Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto is a virtuoso piano piece. After all, he wrote it for himself for his American debut: it is so technically challenging that Josef Hofmann, to whom the work was dedicated, was never able to perform it. But it is also an excellent concerto with a lot of give-and-take between the solo pianist and the orchestra. While the criticism that there is too much repetition is somewhat true, but these are nice melodic tunes that I don’t mind listening to over and over again.

I do not know much about tonight’s soloist. He is about 25 or 26, and seems to have burst onto the scene a couple of years ago.

The performance was technically sound, and the balance between the soloist and the orchestra was good. However, it was the small things that were sometimes neglected. The piece seemed to have been mechanically pounded out, the melodies sounded flat for the most part. Trpceski also had this somewhat unsettling habit of looking at the audience during the orchestral interludes. You just felt the conductor, the orchestra, and the soloist were not all on the same interpretative page.

A Rachmaninoff performance should be an event much anticipated, full of excitement, and exhilarating to watch. For the most part, tonight’s performance didn’t measure up. Given the enthusiastic standing ovation, many others evidently felt otherwise. (The guy next to me kept shouting bravo, but I thought he was asleep through much of the performance.) Trpceski played a simple encore piece, I wasn’t sure whether he was just humoring the audience, or proving to them he could string a singing melody together.

New York Metropolitan Opera – Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. 10/21/2005.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle, Set G112.

Conductor – James Levine; Ferrando – Matthew Polenzani, Guglielmo – Mariusz Kwiecien, Don Alfonso – Thomas Allen, Fiordiligi – Barbara Frittoli, Dorabella – Magdalena Kozena, Depina – Nuccia Focile.

Story: Don Alfonso, friend of Ferrando and Guglielmo, makes a bet with the soon-to-be married young men that their fiancées won’t stay faithful. The two men pretend to go to war and come back disguised as foreigners, each trying to woo the fiancé of the other. With help from Don Alfonso and Despina the maid, they both succeed. In the end they end up getting married anyway.

Many people know of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, but very few have actually seen it. A main reason has to be the length of the opera. With the one intermission, this performance lasted over 3 ½ hours. Imagine the demand the opera must have on the conductor, the singers, and the orchestra.

Tonight’s performance was conducted by James Levine, a world-renowned conductor who somehow finds time to lead multiple orchestras. He is also the conductor in the remake of Disney’s Fantasia. This was the first time I saw him. Given the distance from the stage, I didn’t have a very good view, but he was just like what you would expect. The orchestra and the performance were conducted with precision.

The sets were generally simple, especially by the usual elaborate Met standards. However, the boats in the background that took the soldiers away were done nicely. They appeared to morph from inside a painting to real objects, one even sailed away. I suspect that was done with a screen and lighting effects; interesting to watch nonetheless.

The tunes in this opera are barely on the other side of “singable”. The arias in some of Mozart’s other operas (Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figaro, for instance) come easily. The singing was excellent, the acting was realistic. Don Alfonso, however, came across as weak on occasion. Despina the maid often times stole the show. She drew a hearty laugh when she demonstrated the hard life of a servant by pulling the house onto the set. She disguised as a doctor and a notary in her effort to trick the ladies. All were done with the right touch of hilarity.

I also thought the opera had arias that were a little too long, and could do away with a few of the mad scenes. That would help cut down on the duration also.

The opera works very well as a comedy, but gets into murky territory when it tries to go beyond that. It had to be a very weak commitment for people to marry someone else after a one day absence of their fiancées. And for the fiancées to take them back immediately speaks of a more generous or nonchalant spirit than anyone’s I know. I can’t speak for women, but I would be very offended if I were one by how women were portrayed. “Cosi Fan Tutte”, after all, means “All women act like that”. Given the great music and the generally excellent performance by the artists, it was a real regret that I came away disappointed at the story and the writers’ (composer and librettist) dark view of human nature. We are better than that.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Brentano Quartet – Mark Steinberg, violin; Serena Canin, violin; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Maria Lee, cello. 10/18/2005.

Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University. Row 3, Center Left.


String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 64, no. 3 by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).
String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat Minor, Op. 144 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).
String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 by Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

We were made aware of this concert by a couple we’ve known since my college days. We have only seen them a few times in the intervening 25 or so years, but I did run into Vivian on my trip to Hong Kong last month. Dave and Vivian, my wife Anne and I had dinner at Alchemist and Barrister before the concert.

I am not a great fan of string quartets; I don’t really understand why I feel that way, probably most of the time quartets sound like a solo violin with three accompanists. The last one I saw was the Tokyo Quartet in Sydney a few years back, and I remember that as a rather pleasant concert.

Tonight’s program was quite interesting, with pieces dating from each of the last three centuries. The program notes were also very illuminating, although the annotators (especially Steinberg) seemed to favor complex words over simple ones. Why say “twilight” if you can say “crepuscular”? The notes were especially useful in the case of Shostakovich. I might still have enjoyed the piece, but I probably would have felt terribly lost.

The quartet members all appear to be quite young (in their 30s?). One realizes quickly that they must play together a lot (indeed, the quartet was formed in 1992) and they enjoy making music together. I find it quite strange that they didn’t have to tune their instruments at the beginning, nor in between movements despite the heavy pounding on the strings during some movements. I was facing the cellist, so I couldn’t but help noticing that she played with a severe frown on her face, and I only caught her smiling a couple of times, at her partners. They could also sit a little further apart, the current arrangement has the first violin and viola blocking in the second violin and the cello. Every now and then there were some intonation problems and sloppiness, though.

The Haydn piece highlighted many of the strengths of the quartet. The sound was good, the coordination was good, and the interpretation was good. However, it reinforced my feeling that the first violin is the primary instrument, and the second violin often gets short shrift. I particularly enjoyed the viola though. The Minuet & Trio was a little long: must one do all the repeats? In any case, the piece set the program on a sound foundation (pun intended).

This was my first encounter with the Shostakovich piece, and I like it very much. The quartet was unusual (at least for me) in that it only had slow movements (six of them, Adagio and Adagio molto) and they were played through without interruption. It was also relatively long at about 35 minutes, although it didn’t feel long at all. All the movements were in E flat which inhibited the natural resonance of the string instruments. Many of the movements were played without much vibrato, creating a simple yet disturbing sound. The construction of the movements was also very interesting (helped along by the description in the program notes). The overall effect was sadness, chaos, sense of loss, and hopelessness. Two of the movements were titled “Elegy” and “Funeral March”. The program notes compare the heavy accented screams in the “Serenade” to the broken body parts in Picasso’s Guernica; they simply reminded me of Munch’s famous painting “Scream”. This quartet was written after the death of Stalin, so the political influence, which was often reflected in Shostakovich’s music, should have diminished considerably. Perhaps, to Shostakovich’s dismay, Russia after Stalin remained gray and dismal? It was also written a year before Shostakovich’s death and might well have been his personal requiem. If you are looking for uplifting music, avoid this one. The lady sitting next to us certainly made her displeasure known. If you are looking to extend your musical horizons, this is highly recommended.

If I were designing the program, I would have placed Debussy’s Quartet (he wrote only one) in the middle, both for chronological reasons and to balance the length of the two halves of the concert. This was also a good piece, although it didn’t speak as directly to the listener as Shostakovich’s. The first movement was spirited, and was well played. The notes say it contains the generative material for the entire quartet: I frankly couldn’t trace most of the similarities. The second movement (Scherzo) had each instrument in turn playing with the bow (arco) and the rest plugging away (pizzicato). It was texturally rich. The third movement was slow and played often with mutes. It was supposed to remind the listener of Franck, but I failed to grasp the similarity. The last movement had an interesting fugue-like passage. Amazingly the discordant passage sounded quite harmonious, perhaps Shostakovich was still influencing my perception. The first violin double stops were played with a virtuosic flare. As in the Shostakovich piece, here the different instruments seemed to be playing equally important roles.

It was an evening well spent. A very nice fall evening, meeting up with old friends, pleasant conversations, enjoyable meal, comfortable auditorium, and great music. What’s there not to like? All that, and the concert was free.

Monday, October 17, 2005

New York Philharmonic – Marin Alsop, guest conductor; Midori, violin. 10/15/2005.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Box, Seat 24F2.


The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie (1990) by James MacMillan (b. 1959)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 19 (1917) by Profokiev (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1862-77) by Brahms (1833-97)

Marin Alsop is a relatively young conductor (born in 1956) known for a few things: she is the first woman to lead a major US orchestra (Baltimore starting in 2007), she got a vote of “no confidence” from members of that orchestra, she just won the MacArthur “genius” award, she studied the violin at Julliard, and she is a protégé of Leonard Bernstein. Since she had been in the news quite a bit lately, I was quite eager to see how she would do. The other main draw for me was the performance by Midori: this would be my first time seeing her in a live performance.

Alsop turned to the audience to talk about MacMillan’s piece. She had the orchestra play snippets that denoted the weeping of Gowdie, a young girl who in 1662 was forced to confess to being a witch, executed by strangulation and then burned; the church bells; and how the themes were hidden by the composer. I am not sure the audience appreciated it all that much.

The piece began as advertised, with the strings making a rather disturbing sound which denoted the struggle and tension very well. We then had trumpets playing sustained notes to begin a new passage, with the snare drums and timpani joining in. A segment where the violins played out of synch with each other must have denoted the confusion and violence of the event. The xylophone was used extensively, with a strange effect.

MacMillan didn’t seem to use a lot of tonal range, instead he relied on dynamic range, especially with brass and percussion, to get his idea across. To me, unfortunately, the effect was segmented and flat.

We then heard church-like music that was overtaken by chaos and the original glissando weep in the cellos. A loud scream from the percussion (especially the gong) punctuated the end of the piece.

The piece did not leave a lasting impact on me. The topic (how people are willing to persecute those they don’t understand) can be treated in many ways, and I just failed to see the story MacMillan was trying to tell, or the effect he was trying to accomplish. An interesting passage here or there does not a masterpiece make.

I appreciate the conducting style of Alsop. She threw herself into the music and gestures to get what she wants out of the orchestra. I am not sure the orchestra responded as well as she had hoped though.

Midori is well known to anyone who listens to violin performances. She performed with the New York Philharmonic when she was 11, and that was 20 odd years ago. I was very interested to hear what a Guarnerius violin would sound like: they are generally considered softer and not project as brilliantly as a Stradvarius would.

Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is relatively short at a little over 20 minutes. It began (Andantino – Andante assai) with the violin doing a soft duet with the orchestra; and the solo violin projected very well. The music tensed up soon afterward. Flutes and string pizzicatos started the next passsage; and here I wished the violin projected a little better. Towards the end of the movement, the violin was accompanying the woodwind and harp in a trance-like manner.

The short second movement (Scherzo: Vivacissimo) was technically demanding, which Midori tackled with ease. At times she seemed to try to reach to the music by stretching her body. The passage played on the G string along seemed to be a little rushed for my taste. The muted string accompaniment added a nice effect.

A dance passage began the third movement (Moderato – Allegro moderato – Moderato – Piu tranquillo). High trills in the solo violin ware backed by the orchestra, ending the piece with a dreamlike effect similar to that of the first movement.

I enjoyed the performance very much. I saw Sarah Chang about ten days ago, and couldn’t but help comparing the two performers. Midori was much more mature and much more controlled in her performance; and Midori doesn’t have the same movements (of the body and of the bow) that were so distracting in Chang’s case.

Being a perfectionist, and worried about comparisons with Beethoven, Brahm’s first symphony took all of 14 years or so to complete (well, he worked on it on and off). The program notes wrote glowingly of the symphony, saying it both paid tribute to Beethoven while taking back the “strict instrumental symphony form”. I think it was an overstatement on both counts. The way I reckon it: the symphony wasn’t Beethoven enough, nor was it Mahler enough. I think the later Brahms symphonies have much more character to them.

This was a relatively long symphony at about 45 minutes, and the first movement (Un poco sostenuto – Allegro) was very heavy on strings. The second movement (Andante sostenuto) contained a beautiful clarinet piece, and the solo violin (Glenn Dicterow) played beautifully. The coughs in the audience disturbed much of the third movement (Un poco allegretto e grazioso): again, think cough drops in Carnegie Hall. The theme and the hymn-like passages of the fourth movement (Adagio – Piu andante – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio) reminded of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony strongly. At some point you wished Brahms had put in a choral part – it would have completed the music, rather than detracted from it.

While the concert wasn’t overwhelming, it was nonetheless good to get to see Alsop conducting and Midori playing. See also the New York Times review.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

New York City Opera – Puccini’s Tosca. 10/15/2005.

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center – First Ring, Seat C108.

Conductor: John DeMain; Mario Cavaradossi – Jorge Antonio Pita, Floria Tosca – Carla Thelaen Hanson, Baron Scarpia – Todd Thomas.

Story: To get information on an escaped political prisoner, Scarpia imprisons Cavardossi and threatens to have him killed unless Tosca yields to his sexual desires. After getting Scarpia to promise a fake execution and safe passage, Tosca kills Scarpia. The execution turns out to be genuine and Tosca leaps to her death as Scarpia’s murder was discovered.

I had watched parts of Tosca on TV a few years back, and my wife had seen the entire TV show. Also, I have listened to the entire CD recording before. Nonetheless, this performance turned out to be a great experience.

The curtain opened after a short introduction. It was a simple yet dramatic set showing the inside of a church. A huge cross above, gates on both sides, candles in the front. The tenor soon launched into the famous aria “Recondita armonia” where Cavaradossi reflected on the beauty of Tosca compared with Marchese Angelotti, the woman in his painting of Mary Magdalene. I was disappointed with the tenor’s weak voice, but it was a lovely tune nonetheless. Most of Act 1 was relatively slow, the escape and hiding of Cesare Angelotti (the escaped prisoner) and Tosca's jealousy added some but insufficient tense and light moments. The audience did chuckle at the requests Tosca made to have Mary Magdalene’s eyes painted dark, though. The Act ended with a chilling scene where Scarpia’s evilness was expertly contrasted with the piety of the worshippers. The color of the set turned red, foreboding the impending treachery we were about to witness.

The setting for Act 2 is Scarpia’s living quarters, next to it was the dungeon where Cavaradossi was imprisoned. As if the audience had not developed enough hatred of Scarpia already, here we witnessed how depraved a character he really was. When he described in detail to Tosca how Cavaradossi was tortured, you could sense how revolted the audience felt. It was a heart-wrenching moment as Tosca dropped to her knees and sang “Vissa d’art, vissi d’amore”. Puccini had a great technique with the vocalist accompanying the orchestra playing the melody, and it was used to great effect here. While there was some satisfaction that Tosca killed Scarpia at the end of the Act, there was not much feeling of relief as we knew how the story would turn out. That Tosca tried to sanctify the body of Scarpia just added to the unease.

The setting for Act 3 was simple but macabre. On the right was a stack of sandbags that showed some blood stains, and the Act began with soldiers mopping up from the last execution. Here Cavaradossi sang the famous aria “E luceven le stelle,” reflecting on the world he was to leave behind. The words to this aria were written by Puccini after much argument with the librettists. When Tosca joined him and sang of the future they would have, it simply added to the despair felt by the audience. Mercifully, the opera ended rather quickly when the “mock execution like that of Palmieri” and Tosca jumping off the balcony happened in quick succession.

The audience gave the performers a well deserved round of applause, and I was personally relieved to see everyone that was killed return for the curtain call.

The story would be called over-dramatic, but this was a very enjoyable opera that was well-directed and well-performed. I was a bit disappointed at Cavaradossi – afterall, the CD I listened to has the part sung by Domingo.

An opera well worth the three hours. See also the New York Times review.

Friday, October 07, 2005

New York Philharmonic – Charles Dutoit, Guest Conductor; Sarah Chang, violin. 10/6/2005.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center, Seat DD116.


Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911, orch. 1912) by Ravel (1875-1937)
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 (1879; rev. 1880-82) by Dvorak (1841-1904)
Selections from Romeo and Juliet (1935-1936) by Prokofiev (1891-1953)

October is going to be a heavy concert month for us. Tonight’s concert was the third this month, and next Saturday we will be attending Tosca at NYC Opera and seeing Midori with the NY Philharmonic (Dutoit guest conducting). We have 2 more concerts the following week (Cosi fan Tutti at the Met and another New York Philharmonic concert).

This set of Ravel’s Waltzes were first written for the piano to be played in a studio or a salon, but was later orchestrated by Ravel over the course of 15 days. I have not heard the music before, and was surprised that the full orchestra was out for the performance.

The eight waltzes were played without any noticeable breaks, and they followed the scenario of a love story where different flowers were presented. The first waltz described the tuberose (for sensual pleasure, pictured), and this is represented by heavy, accented beats – not much imagination needed here. The smooth, dreamlike waltz that follows describes the buttercup (coquetry, which means flirtation). The flowers that were subsequently presented were marguerite (love shunned), sunflower (empty riches), acacia (Platonic love), poppy (forgetfulness), and red rose (love fulfilled). The piece concludes with an epilogue.

I wasn’t able to correlate the different waltzes with the flowers after a while, that there sometimes wasn’t a noticeable break didn’t help. Ravel used different techniques and instruments to describe the changing scenes. We have “out-of-breath” flutes, muted strings (a lot of it), melodious segments, and agitated play. If you are not familiar with the music, you can get quite confused trying to assign a particular theme to a program. It may be interesting to hear the pieces played by the piano also.

I have seen Dutoit a few times before, once with the Montreal Symphony, and once with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He looks much more emotive than Maazel, and generates a different sound from the New York Philharmonic. Surprisingly, the orchestra sounded more restrained under Dutoit.

Sarah Chang is a Korean American violinist. She has been around for a long time (I must have a CD of hers that’s close to 10 years old), but must be only around 25. This is the first time I see her in a live performance.

The Dvorak violin concerto started with strong statements by the violin and the orchestra, which defined how the first movement (Allegro ma non troppo) was going to play out. Chang has this habit of swaying (a bit much for me) and swinging her bow in a huge arc. She must do this all the time, so my fear that she may trip or break her bow was probably unwarranted. While this was a little distracting, the music was still very enjoyable.

New York Philharmonic has a tradition of the concertmaster ceding his chair when a solo artist is on stage. I don’t know exactly who is extending the courtesy to whom, but if I were the concertmaster, I would definitely want to take part in these exciting performances. I don’t recall this being done in other orchestras.

The program notes describes an argument between Dvorak and his publisher on whether there should be a pause between the first and second movements. Dvorak stood his ground and we continue on with Adagio ma non troppo. Chang seemed to have to struggle to get her violin heard over the (surprisingly) large orchestra. The human ear is amazing, it can pick out one instrument out of a group of 80 or so, over 20 of them are of the same kind (violins).

The third movement (Finale: Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo) contains themes from two traditional Czech dances. By this time I was a little disappointed at how the piece was being rushed through. To me Dvorak probably tried to avoid this by marking all three movements “ma non troppo.” While there might have been attempts to slow down every now and then, the overall effect was hurried and a little muddled.

There was no encore, even though the audience reception was quite enthusiastic. Make no mistake, the piece was brilliantly played, except I was hoping for more than just a virtuoso performance.

There must be a lot of music based on Romeo and Juliet, so I wasn’t sure if I was familiar with Prokofiev’s take on it. Turns out except for a couple of the selections, the music was new to me. Altogether eight selections from the ballet were performed tonight.

Prokofiev tended to have well defined themes for the individual characters, and it was easy to discern the themes for Juliet, the Montagues, and the Capulets. The piece began with the brass and percussion sections generating immediate tension, and Juliet was introduced by the flute. I again had trouble tracking the different selections, but the music was pleasant, especially the cello solo. I managed to resynchronize the music when the percussions began the “Romeo & Juliet” selection, a rather familiar “movement.” Unfortunately I again lost track. The rather long movement (“Death of Tybalt?”) provided a sense of urgency first appearing in the strings and brass, and later shared by the entire orchestra. The timpani and string pizzicato lead to a series of broad statement punctuated by timpani and drums. I was ready to applaud, luckily the raised arms of Dutoit told me that wasn’t the end yet. The piece finished with the full sound of the orchestra which did convey a sense of hopelessness. I couldn’t imagine there was any debate whether Prokofiev should substitute a happy ending in the ballet, no one would have accepted it. In any case, the high-pitched piccolo and strings concluded a satisfying piece of orchestra work.

Overall, a worthwhile concert.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor; Jonathan Bliss, piano. 10/1/2005.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Center, Seat CC8.


Holiday Overture (1944, rev. 1961) by Elliott Carter (b. 1908)
Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488 (ca 1784-86) by Mozart (1756-91)
Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 (1888-89) by R. Strasuss (1864-1949)
Dance of the Seven Veils, from Salome (1905) by R. Strauss

We couldn’t go to a planned concert so we exchanged our tickets for this one. This was going to be the second concert for the day – we had just seen NYC Opera’s production of Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims. I had not heard of either Elliott Carter or Jonathan Biss. Elliott Carter is close to 97 years old and lives in the area. He has been composing for many decades, and had even taught at my alma mater (Cornell, although it was before my time), but I had never encountered his music before. I am sure it speaks more to my lack of exposure to American composer music than his music’s popularity. Jonathan Biss is a young pianist (25 years old) who debuted with the New York Philharmonic 5 years ago. The program notes say he is from a line of professional musicians, but do not say much about Biss’s own accomplishments.

Sometimes I don’t understand how a program is put together. I don’t see any relationship among the three composers, or the pieces that were performed today. Mozart looks especailly out of place, stuck as it is between works composed about 200 years later.

Carter’s Holiday Overture is an enjoyable piece. The first impression was that it was quite loud, unexpectedly tonal, and rather folksy sounding. About half way into the 10 minute piece, the music changed with muted violins playing softly. A series of volume and tempo changes changed the tone of the music. Towards the end, string tremolos lead to rather strong statements from the full orchestra which sounded at times a little chaotic.

The orchestra played extraordinarily well. They made excellent sound with great precision, and one sensed the entire orchestra was into the music. The program notes describe this as a complicated piece for the time it was written, I couldn’t tell. The statement also assumes composers have a herd mentality, which I am sure the composers themselves will contest.

The Mozart piano concerto was written while Mozart was enjoying great success as a concerto pianist. It is unthinkable that Mozart could fall out of favor, but evidently he did from time to time.

Compared to Chopin (see last week’s blog), the orchestra plays a significant role in Mozart’s concertos, even though Mozart also used his concertos to showcase the piano. This is a rather complicated composition and was done quite well. At times I had problems with the relative loudness of the piano (generally too soft for my taste). I like my Mozart crisp, and there seemed to be too much pedaling. The cadenza and the third movement were nicely done though. Biss seems to have some exaggerated body movements that don’t go quite well with the piece. For the casual listener, it is very difficult to come away from a Mozart concerto greatly impressed.

I have encountered a lot of Strauss lately. We heard his Symphonia domestica in May, and saw the opera Capriccio three weeks ago. “Death and Transfiguration”, like the Symphonia, is a symphonic poem. It is a single movement with four distinct sections: the sick man and his dreams (Largo); the man’s struggle with death (Allegro molto agitato); the man seeing his life pass before him and giving himself over to death (Meno moss, ma sempre alla breve); and the man’s redemption and transfiguration (Moderato).

I enjoy music that follows a program so I can, for example, correlate the taps on the timpani with death. It is easier than to try to follow how Strauss started the composition in C minor and ended it in C major, per the program notes. It was also interesting to catch the “artistic theme” which was repeated many times in different parts of the orchestra. The later hymn-like repetition of the theme reassures that the subject indeed finds redemption. There is a section where the strings seemed to “fire at will” that I don’t quite comprehend.

They put out the full orchestra for the Dance. I doubt in the opera the orchestra would be that big as it will drown out most singers. After its debut in New York (in 1905), Salome wasn’t played for 27 years because of the furor it caused, and one would think the dance had a lot to do with it. A hundred years later, the music sounded quite innocuous: one would need a large dose of imagination to be shocked by it. The frenzied theme at the end and the brass brought the music to an interesting conclusion. I mentioned in a previous blog that I had seen some parts of the opera on TV. I vaguely recall John’s head on a plate, and that Salome was killed at the end. Salome was played by one of these sopranos that, according to the program notes, “clarified why they became singers rather than dancers.”

An okay concert, but not as good as some others I have been to.

See also the New York Times review of the concert.

New York City Opera – Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims 10/1/2005.

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center – First Ring, Seat D18.

Conductor: George Manahan. Cast: Many.

This opera has practically no story. It was written by Rossini as part of the celebration of Charles X’s coronation, and to showcase the superiority of bel canto style to the “French howling” style employed at the Paris Opera. An international assemblage of guests were stuck at the Golden Lily Hotel on their way to Rheims, which provided an occasion for the many many (the program lists 18 names) singers to showcase their talents.

Viewed as such, it was a very enjoyable opera. The curtain was actually a helpful map of Europe showing the different nationalities involved. Most of the time the set was dominated by one color (white and orange come to mind), which produced a surprising nice effect. The individual arias demonstrated different vocal techniques. Some were a little on the lengthy side though.

There was a very well done and comical fight scene where toy canons and soldiers were advanced to calm and quiet music. The final bursts of canon fire killed everyone, but they were awakened gently by the harp. Unfortunately world peace proved temporary as the principals engaged in fighting once again.

Many arias projected especially well – the one sung by the Englishman comes to mind – and again I wonder if it has to do with the sound system employed by the theater.

Rossini seemed particularly fond of making fun of the French, both in the portrayal of the Countess and in the national anthems sequence. Some things never change.

Satires, especially of the political kind, tend not to keep well. Except for the serious history student, political issues lose their meaning after, say, a hundred years. I suspect not even the French would be moved by a long tribute to King Charles X? This contrasts with operas based on human emotions, which seem to resonate forever.

“The Journey to Rheims” suffers both from being an out-of-date political satire and an opera without a story. Go see it for the music, though.

Monday, September 26, 2005

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor; Lang Lang, Piano. 9/24/2005.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Center, Seat AA110.


Piano Concerto in E minor, Op. 11 (1829-30) by Chopin (1810-49).
Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888; rev. 1893-1906) by Mahler (1860-1911).

We planned our vacation so we could be back for this concert, in large part due to the performance by Lang Lang. My expectations for Lang Lang’s performance was met, but, unfortunately, not exceeded.

The Chopin concerto began with a long orchestral introduction. The program notes referred to the 138 measures deleted in many of the performances as the “cruelest cut”. The introduction was pleasant enough, but the subjects were going to be repeated several times in the movement anyway, so I wouldn’t have minded as much.

When Lang Lang launched into the piece, one could feel the expectation fill the concert hall. And this was a well attended concert. Chopin’s concertos often sound like nocturnes and polonaises juxtaposed together, this movement was no exception. Musicologists can do their endless analyses of the music, but to me (and I suspect to most listeners) Chopin concertos are virtuoso pieces with orchestral accompaniment. Every now and then there is more of a dialog – like the duet with the bassoons – but there is no doubt that the piano is the showcased instrument here. Which is perfectly okay … People think of Paganini’s concertos the same way.

During the first part of the second movement, I had trouble staying awake. After all, I flew back the previous day from Hong Kong, and was quite jet-lagged. And it was a slow movement.

The third movement was in classical rondo form. I wonder what kind of a career Lang Lang would have. He is now in his early 20s, and can play for another 50 or more years. Would he continue to improve? Would he experiment with different kinds of music? The possibilities are endless. To piano students, Lang Lang must be an inspiration. However, to struggling piano players, it must be very discouraging to have someone burst on to the scene apparently so effortlessly. (Not to take away the hard work Lang Lang has done ever since he was a kid.) In any case, the coda of the third movement was brilliantly done.

Make no mistake about it, Lang Lang is impressive, and makes difficult pieces look simple. And this was a great performance. However, I saw him playing Tchaikovsky’s concerto in October, 2004, and I remember that as a more exciting performance.

Mahler’s first symphony is quite different from his later ones. He already started using huge orchestras (especially the brass sections), and his symphonies are all quite long. This one lasted over 50 minutes. I am not that familiar with Mahler, but it would be an interesting exercise to see how his composition techniques changed as he got older.

To my ears this symphony is quite tonal, and contains many “hummable” melodies. In this symphony, Mahler was also more repetitions of his themes in different parts of the orchestra. There are some very classical passages in the first movement that would remind one of Beethoven (Pastoral Symphony) or Schubert (Unfinished Symphony.) The melodies have a hint of Dvorak also.

The program notes said Mahler originally annotated an earlier version of this symphony and later discarded the “program” as the piece got revised. I don’t see how the revisions or even the withdrawal of the notes would change the original images the composer had in mind. In any case, I couldn’t help associating the stormy passage in the first movement with spring.

The second movement began with a march like passage with well-accented beats. The theme was repeated multiple times in different parts of the orchestra – dare I say perhaps more than necessary? A quiet passage lulls the listener into thinking this was to be a short movement, but the orchestra then launches into the original theme before speeding to the conclusion.

The third movement began with the “Frere Jacques” theme in the double bass, repeated in turn by the bassoons, cellos, and then the clarinets. The polka-like and gypsy passages make the movement sound comical at times. The pizzicatos in the double basses combine with the timpani to bring the movement to a pleasant end.

The loud cymbal started the fourth movement with a jolt. Here I thought the orchestra was a little out of control and played too violently. Perhaps it was an unexpected storm (although this movement is to be an “advance towards spiritual victory”). A series of decrescendos brought the music to a slower, quieter passage. The tremolos in the violins presaged a buildup followed by several crescendos and decrescendos. Here we see the full range of Mahler techniques at work. An apparent end became the beginning of yet another passage. At the end, all the French horns (my wife counted eight, the program says seven) stood up, and everyone joined in the chaotic end.

I like Mahler’s symphonies. Most of them, however, are acquired tastes in that I had to listen to them several times before I started to appreciate them. I believe this is the first time I listened to the entire first symphony, and I like it. I can also appreciate how difficult it is to interpret his music well. Despite the sometimes over-the-top passages, Maazel has a well-deserved reputation as a Mahler specialist.

Despite some of my misgivings, this was a very enjoyable evening. I am glad I came back in time for it.

See also the New York Times review of the concert. It had surprisingly little to say about the Mahler symphony.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

New York City Opera – Strauss’s Capriccio 9/10/2005

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center – First Tier, Seat B23.

Conductor: George Manahan; Flamand – Ryan MacPherson, Olivier – Mel Ulrich, Countess – Pamela Armstrong.

Story: This opera explores if words or music is the greater art form. The Countess was in love with Flamand the composer and Olivier the poet. She couldn’t decide and therefore asked the two men to write an opera and she would pick the finale of the one she chose.

This was the first concert we were attending for the 2005/2006 season. My expectations were high after reading up on the opera at the NYC Opera website. Capriccio was Strauss’s last (15th) opera and considered by him to be his best. I came away quite disappointed for two reasons. The opera, a comedy, didn’t live up to the billing. (Warning: if you don’t want the ending spoiled, skip the next sentence.) Also, the question of which is the higher art form wasn’t answered.

This was the first Strauss opera I saw. The only other exposure I have had of his operas was what the last part of Salome I caught on TV, which I found quite fascinating. NYC Opera sets appear to be more elaborate compared to those of a few years ago when I first started going. The set for this opera even had a moving stage in Act 2. There were also many scenes where the wait staff kept rearranging chairs for apparently no good reason, but was quite amusing.

Part I began with an overture that sounded like a string ensemble. It was a nice piece, but a bit on the long side. I was also pleased with the acoustics of the theater – did NYC Opera work to improve it during the off season? Clairon, the object of affection of the Count, had a rather wobbly vocal entrance, although she improved during the show.

There was a play within the opera which I found a bit too affected. The laughter of the audience was at time more due to embarrassment than amusement. At this point I thought the opera was quite disjoint and lacked a clear direction.

In addition to weighing the relative merits of music and words, the opera throws in other forms of art including acting, singing and dance. There was a ballet interlude that is quite pleasant to watch (it even borders on being funny at times). But the question of “why?” kept popping up in my mind. Similarly, the aria sung by the bel canto Italian singers was pleasant enough but didn’t add much to the opera.

Part I ended with the Countess deciding on an important thing: serving chocolate at the party. This reminds me of Scarlett’s famous line in Gone with the Wind: “I can’t think about that right now … I’ll think about that tomorrow.” I am sure the sale of candy was quite brisk during the intermission!

Part II was more enjoyable than Part I. It had a mad scene where everyone was on stage. I counted the waitstaff, the principals, the ballet dances, the director, a couple of Roman soldiers, Roman royalty (well, they could be Greek), and the Italian singers. It was choreographed nicely enough, but wasn’t very funny.

About an hour into Part II, there was an orchestral interlude at the conclusion of which the stage got a bit surreal. The color turned mostly gold, with the Countess asking herself, and the mirror, which man/art form she should pick. At one point I was sure the images of Flamand and Olivier appeared for a while. How did they do that?

The opera concluded with the Countess deciding on what to eat for supper. By this time I had already given up on a definite opinion from the composer, but was still surprised at the non-climax which few, if any, in the audience found funny.

I don’t speak French, Italian, and had only one year of German in college. One would think the language the opera was sung in won’t bother me a bit. I have heard the recording of The Flying Dutchman, and it was okay. I have heard Bizet’s and Thomas’s operas in French, and they sounded marvelous. For some reason I found this opera (in German) a little awkward.

The premise of the opera is interesting enough, but the composer and the librettist wouldn’t answer the questions they posed, and couldn’t make a true comedy out of the subject matter either. There were many elements that could have been woven together into an interesting whole, but I don’t think they succeeded. Capriccio doesn’t appear to be a popular opera (one proof: not that many relevant Google references). There are many operas I would want to see again to get a deeper appreciation, not this one.

See also the New York Times review of this opera. It also explains why there were all these references to Gluck which escaped me.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor. 6/25/2005.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. First Tier Center, Seat AA21.

Mahler (1860-1911). Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-05, rev. 1906)

I am not too familiar with Mahler’s music outside of a couple of his symphonies. When I was playing at the Cornell Symphony we played his Fifth Symphony, probably the most well known one of the ten or so he published. The program notes described this symphony, commonly called “tragic,” as “a cosmos that holds out no hope for mankind.” So I was getting ready for a depressing evening.

Perhaps one other reason the symphony is not familiar to many people is its length. The program notes mentioned a length of about 83 minutes; including the pauses in between movements, tonight’s performance was 85 minutes. It was a massive production requiring a lot of stamina from the orchestra and, especially, the conductor. On the other hand, it must be satisfying to be able to put out a huge production. Maazel usually conducts without music, not for this complicated case, though

The orchestra launched energetically into the first movement (Allegro energico, ma non troppo), with the snare drums making an early entrance. After a quiet interlude, we heard for the first time the Alma’s theme described in Playbill. This theme would be repeated many times. The many fragments created an image of struggles without success. About 10 minutes into the movement, a sweet passage surfaced but the music soon turned dark again. Alma’s theme reappeared before the coda concluded the 25-minute movement.

There was a short pause after the first movement so late-comers could get seated. A melancholic, melodic theme in the violins began the second movement (Andante). Then came the woodwinds with the second theme against a pedal point by the strings. The movement could have concluded at this point. As the movement continued, I couldn’t help but think Mahler was trying to squeeze in every thought he had about the movement. Perhaps it had not reached the level of despair he felt. I can imagine why one would go crazy trying to express in music one’s inner feelings. (Not that Mahler did.) In any case, this was a relatively short 17 minute movement.

The timpani began the third movement (Scherzo, weighty), followed by ear-piercing piccolos. True to its description, the movement contained many passages that were at least comical, bordering on happy. However, about 5 minutes into this movement, the timpani announced another section that brought the music back down to earth. After developing the theme in different parts of the orchestra, a new theme emerged to conclude the 13-minute movement. I didn’t think “weighty” is quite how I’d describe this movement, although it is quite weighty for a Scherzo.

The dreamlike strums of the harps began the last movement (Finale. Allegro moderato – Allegro energico). A loud percussion section brought the audience back to earth. A tuba and harp passage was followed by one bordering on standard harmony, the effect was impending doom. The harps evoked images of the pi-pa (a Chinese instrument) and seemed to describe wandering in the wilderness. Another interlude of light and pleasant message was plunged into despair with strings and percussion. It was fun to watch the percussion musicians move from one station to the other. The bell-ringer had to go back stage to play certain passages. I also noticed at this point that the full orchestra took up the entire stage, and that the black screens usually at the back of the stage were not used for tonight’s concert. About 15 minutes into this movement, the first of the 2 famous hammer blows came down with a loud thud. The mood changed to one of precision and clarity. Soon enough the second hammer blow came down. At this point the music got to be quite chaotic – that a violinist dropped her bow was only barely noticed. A series of bells followed by a small part of the orchestra made one think the end was near, until more chaos came along, helped by two sets of cymbals played together. Eventually the movement (which was 27 minutes long) and the symphony drew to a conclusion with a quiet passage punctuated by several loud chords.

The audience gave the performance a well-deserved standing ovation. This was the last regular concert of the season. Maazel made several curtain calls and thanked the orchestra. I was quite impressed at his energy level throughout the physically demanding symphony. After all, he couldn’t conduct last week’s concerts because of illness.

My appreciation of Mahler’s music usually improves with continued exposure. I suspect it would be the same with this symphony. It was a hugely interesting piece to watch and listen to. Unfortunately, the symphony is long, and not often played. If you enjoy symphonies, this one is well worth the time.

The New York Times review, which I read after writing mine, contains an interesting storyline for the symphony that is quite interesting. It is also a good review, I must say.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

New York Philharmonic. David Robertson – guest conductor; Gil Shaham – violin; Thomas Stacy – English horn. 6/18/2005.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Second Tier Center. Seat BB113.

David Robertson was guest conductor for this evening’s concert as Lorin Maazel was sick. The program was also changed.

Dukas (1865-1935). The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Scherzo after a ballad of Goethe (1897).
Sibelius (1865-1957). Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47 (1902-04, rev. 1905).
Sibelius. The Swan of Tuonela, op. 22, No. 2 (from the Lemminkainen Suite, 1895, rev. 1879, 1900).
Stravinsky (1882-1971). The Firebird Suite for Orchestra (1919).

The Dukas piece was put in the program with the guest conductor Robertson, who is the director-designate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. We heard this piece played by the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel in February, 2005, and I am frankly quite surprised that they couldn’t find another piece. It may have something to do with pieces with themes for this evening’s concert, but still …

I had never heard of Robertson before, he appeared to be quite youthful and energetic when he stepped onto the podium, so I was quite hopeful. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a piece made famous by Mickey Mouse in Disney’s Fantasia, and is an interesting piece telling of the story of an apprentice getting in trouble by casting a spell which he didn’t know how to break.

The performance was quite uninspiring, with a loudness that for the most part ranged from loud to louder, except for the few parts that were obligatorily soft. I think the performance was a missed opportunity to showcase how the orchestra could work with a guest conductor, and was surprised to recall I enjoyed the February performance quite a bit more.

Gil Shaham is a world-renowned violinist who is in his 30s. He was received enthusiastically by the audience. I have never heard the Sibelius violin concerto played on stage, and was quite amazed at how difficult the piece was. Shaham started the first movement (Allegro moderato) with a captivating opening statement, but encountered some unexpected technical problems with keeping the bow on the strings. Perhaps it was opening jitters as he went to tackle with ease some passages that were much more demanding. His violin (a Stradivarious) had good volume, although the sound was not as brilliant as some other Straivarii I’ve heard. But the violin projected well against the orchestra. There was a flying staccato section that I wished had come through more, though.

Shaham moved around quite a bit on stage. Sometimes he was very close to the conductor, other times he moved so far back that he nearly lined up with the strings. I am sure many in the audience were wondering if he was going to hit someone or something.

It is widely known that Sibelius wanted to be a solo violinist but either started too late or didn’t have the required natural talent, and that this violin concerto indicated how he wished to play, but couldn’t. Given how dark Sibelius’s music tends to be anyway, it was easy to read in the first movement the frustration and struggle he must have felt as he came to grips with his limited potential as a performer.

Shaham seemed to have to struggle to produce the volume needed at the beginning of the second movement (Adagio di molto), a surprise given the violin he was playing. Nonetheless, the movement contained some interesting passages, one of which was an ascending violin with a descending orchestra. The cello part was very pleasant.

The third movement (Allegro ma non troppo) was probably the most difficult, and was done very well. There was a section with just the violin repeating the theme with the timpani in the background that I found extremely captivating. If one were to read meaning into these things, one could conclude Sibelius finally came to accept his limitations and was at peace with it.

The audience gave Shaham a well-deserved applause, and he played an encore piece which I believe to be a Bach partita for the solo violin.

The second half of the concert began with another Sibelius piece based on a Finnish epic complied from ancient pagan myths. This tone poem tells of the story of the Swan of Tuonela (land of death, hell) floating majestically on the waters surrounding this Tuonela. The English horn represents the Swan’s death song.

This was a forgettable performance of a forgettable piece. The program notes recognizes this by saying the mood is more of resignation; I would go further and say the piece didn’t reflect at all the story it was supposed to tell. The English horn was barely noticeable most of the time, and sounded more like endless droning than the song of the dying Swan. There were several cello passages that were quite pleasant, though.

The Firebird Suite began with the double bass section, first joined by the cellos, and then the trombones. It quickly captured your attention. The mysterious nature of the first movement (Introduction: The Firebird and its Dance; Variation of the Firebird) was enhanced by the muted strings. The second movement (The Khorovod of the Princessess) was melodic and smooth. It contained some nice solo passages for the strings and the flute. Anyone dozing off must have been waken up when the bass drum and the tuba started the third movement (Infernal Dance of King Kashchei). Which is just as well as this familiar movement was quite pleasant to listen to. The music continues without pause to the fourth movement (Berceuse: Lullaby) which was quite reflective and tender. The bassoon passage was particularly haunting and sweet. The fifth movement (Finale) began with a tune first played by the French horn and subsequently repeated by other sections of the orchestra. The precise, organ-like passage confirmed that we are listening to a wedding processional for the prince and his chosen princess. This popular movement concluded a rather delightful performance of the piece. It also makes you want to go see the ballet.

See the New York Times review on an earlier performance of the program. The article also contains some interesting facts.

Friday, May 06, 2005

New York Philharmonic. Leonard Slatkin – guest conductor; Lynn Harrell - cello. 5/5/2005.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Second Tier Center. Seat AA114.


The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly (2002-04;
New York premiere) by Jefferson Friedman (b. 1974).
Schelomo (Solomon): A Hebrew Rhapsody for Violoncello Solo and Orchestra (1916) by
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). Soloist: Lynn Harrell.
Symphonia domestica, op. 53 (1902-03) by Richard Strauss (1864-1949).

We had seats for the Saturday 5/7/2005 evening performance of this program. We live in New Jersey, so Saturdays usually work out better for us. However, we would like to drive to New Haven to visit our daughter who will have finished the last of her examinations at University (her graduation is in a couple of weeks), so I exchanged those tickets for tonight’s performance instead. As we expected, the concert was not well attended at all, I estimate it to be about 70% full. Even a city as big as New York can’t always muster up a good audience for its Philharmonic orchestra.

I had not seen Slatkin in person before, and had not heard any of the pieces either, so tonight was going to be a new experience for me.

Before the concert began, Slatkin turned to the audience and explained that the concert would be quite special. The pieces represented extremely personal statements by the composers. Strauss had already written a symphonic poem about himself (Ein Heldenleben) before he embarked on describing a day in his (family) life in tonight’s piece, Symphonia domestica. Slatkin promised that the audience would be fascinated by how the simple motifs (consisting of 3 notes) would bounce around in the piece. The piece “Solomon” is an example of Bloch’s work about faith, especially Judaism. The cello, representing Solomon, had a special meaning for Bloch. The maestro joked the opening piece had such a long title that he couldn’t remember it. The work was an expression for both the composer and the artist whose work inspired the piece. The set of elaborate sculptures was created by James Hampton, a janitor, from found objects such as tin cans. Slatkin talked about the difficulty of translating physical objects into aural ones, but the finished work reflected the sculptor’s deep faith. The composer was in the audience, and the performance of his work was dedicated to his father who had passed away six days earlier.

Friedman’s piece turned out to be quite interesting and pleasant to hear. It opened with the brass section accompanied by some background “noise.” A majestic theme was then heard over the cacophony of the percussion section. The music continued this way for four or five minutes before a lone viola led the orchestra into the next segment. The dissonance created by the violins and the cellos were joined gradually by the rest of the string section, with the timpani beats foreboding impending doom. Again other parts of the orchestra joined in with the strings providing a pedal point of sorts. It seems Friedman limited the tonal range and used instead dynamic range to develop the piece. Eventually we came to another climax, and then the orchestra was quiet again. When the new short melody was overtaken again by a similar construction, the technique felt a little tired and overused. According to the program notes, Friedman describes “the first half of the piece [as depicting] Hampton’s receipt of vision and the construction of The Throne.” About 15 minutes into the piece, a structured segment appeared, and it sounded like a collection of fragments from some familiar hymns with classical tonal harmony. One wonders if the glimmering sound was the reflection of the light off the objects in the sculpture. Towards the end we heard sounds that could be described as church bells. Friedman intends the second part to depict Hampton’s salvation. To produce the desired effects, the composer places trumpets and trombones in a ring around the outer edge of the orchestra, and placed two string quartets to the left and right of the orchestra to frame the string sections.

Overall, this was an enjoyable piece. The composer used combination of instruments to generate some interesting sounds. The audience showed its appreciation when Friedman was invited onto the stage by Slatkin.

Lynn Harrell’s entry onto the stage was energetic: he lifted the cello above his head as he walked to the podium. (The cello actually isn’t that heavy, but it’s a sizable piece of instrument.) The cello began the piece with string pizzicato as the backdrop. In contrast to the first piece, the full tonal range of the cello was utilized right at the outset. The cello’s tone was beautiful, and Harrell seemed to be able to make even the low registers sing pleasantly and clearly. Every now and then, however, I thought his intonation was a bit off. Even though a rather full orchestra was playing, the good balance between it and the soloist made for a good conversation between the two.

This piece was inspired by Ecclesiastes, where 11 of the 12 chapters describe the woes of mankind and that all is vanity. Bloch’s music seemed to go through different ways of raising one’s hope, only to plunge back into despair. The music was agitated in many parts. One can easily imagine Solomon screaming or tearing out his hair. Every now and then a euphoric sounding segment would appear, only to deteriorate into hopelessness. The piece ended on a sad note, to which Bloch said “This work … concludes in a complete negation. But the subject demanded it!” That was unfortunate. If one continues on with the 12th chapter of the book, one would realize meaning can be found in God, and that He should be remembered. Indeed the last two verses of Ecclesiastes reads, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”

Strauss’s Symphonia domestica concluded the evening’s program after the intermission. By that time so many had left the concert hall that you could see a lot of empty seats in the preferred orchestra section. Which was too bad, as the piece was quite unique and had an interesting structure to it. It was about 44 minutes long, but is divided into seven sections each with depicts a particular aspect of the Strauss household.

The first section was five minutes in length and introduced Richard, Pauline his wife, and Franz their young son, with an assortment of relatives making appearances. It was delightful to hear, left an impression that the family led a harmonious and happy life, and that they complemented each other, but I must admit I couldn’t gleam from it the motifs that would describe the three characters.

The Scherzo had the motifs played in different sections of the orchestra and presented some interesting structures. It was surprisingly “heavy duty” for a supposedly light-hearted section, ending on a noisy segment. The slow lullaby section contained a pleasant melodic passage by the flutes and clarinets, with bassoons in the background. I was falling asleep together with Baby Franz, and therefore missed the seven bells marking the event.

The Adagio that followed described the grown ups’ private time. It had a relatively intense section which the program notes describes as “[making] the possibility of another Strauss child foreseeable.” It was mainly played by the strings, but didn’t sound erotic to me at all. The dream-like state that followed recalled some of the passion and contained a nice passage by the two harps and muted strings. I heard the clock striking seven very distinctly this time.

The orchestra launched into the Finale without so much as a pause – definitely not how I wake up in the mornings. The motifs made short, repeated appearances in this double fugue, and the listener was reassured that everyone was enjoying the day. Towards the end, Pauline’s motif kept asserting itself (nagging wife?) until the piece concluded with Strauss’s motif making a definitive statement.

Overall, this was a pleasant experience. The thing about modern music is that it requires more work on the audience’s part. I suspect my appreciation of the event would have been greatly enhanced if I had studied the music in advance. Also, vitality of a live performance depends a lot on the feedback from the audience; it was disappointing that not more people attended this particular concert.

See also the short review in the New York Times.