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.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

New York Philharmonic. Rostropovich – guest conductor; Martha Argerich – piano; Philip Smith – trumpet. 4/30/2005

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

Tonight’s concert was nearly an all-Russian affair. Two pieces by Dmitry Shostakovich and two by Sergei Prokofiev. The conductor was Mstislav Rostropovich. Argentina-born Martha Argerich was the solo pianist.

I don’t understand Shostakovich. I suspect many in the audience, in their moments of weakness, would admit to the same. But this is New York City, and we are all masters of the universe, at least masters of Russian modern music.

My first contact with Shostakovich was when I was a teenager in Hong Kong. One of his concertos was performed by a competitor in the Hong Kong School Music Festival. I went as a student reporter for a local newspaper and dutifully jotted down the judge’s comments on the performance, although I was totally confounded by the piece. During the intervening 30-odd years, I have come into contact with this composer’s works quite a few times. I recall enjoying listening to his violin concerto and his symphony (don’t remember which ones), and if you search my house, you may find a CD of his music.

The program started with his op. 96 Festive Overture composed in 1954. The beginning trumpet voluntary seemed a little wobbly, but the performance improved to become exciting and enjoyable. Rostropovich, in his late 70s, is still very energetic. His effervescence was contagious and he got himself a very appreciative crowd who applauded with great enthusiasm. This short piece is quite different from my impression of what Shostakovich sounds like, in that it still has a heavy dose of romantic structure in it.

The program notes contains some interesting facts about this piece: it was pulled together in about a week, and the orchestra had a dress rehearsal two days later. It amazes me how the genius and the professional can work at such blazing speed.

Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in C minor for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings (op. 35) is mostly for the piano and the string orchestra, with the trumpet making an appearance here and there. This was composed in 1933, a full 20 years before the Festive Overture, yet it has a much more modern structure to it. The composer lived during a very tumultuous period in Russian history with the political winds blowing in different directions from one year to the other. He won the accolades of the government many times, and he was condemned many times for compositions considered either not patriotic enough or not appropriately effusive of the revolution. It was a sign of the times that at a youthful 27 he refused to comment on the inner meaning of the work (quoting from the program notes.) I couldn’t tell whether it was revolutionary, patriotic, or hinted at anti-communism – I am sure many of my fellow concert-goers couldn’t either.

While I am not able to analyze the work, it is overall a melodious piece, with good balance between the soloist, the trumpet, and the orchestra. I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall a couple of weeks ago where Argerich performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Charles Dutoit conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. There Argerich dominated the orchestra which detracted from an otherwise excellent performance. She didn’t have that problem tonight. The back-and-forth among the strings, the trumpet and the piano was most enjoyable. The segments where the trumpet played a mournful tune (when’s the last time you heard a mournful tune from a trumpet?) and the strings played with the wooden part of the bow (del sogno?) were most interesting. The fourth movement sounded just like what I thought Shostakovich should sound like. At the end Argerich launched into a fiery cadenza which she tackled with ease.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major (op. 10) was composed in 1911, when the composer was only 20 years old. This work is quite well known and begins with an energetic statement by the piano that will recur a couple of times during the piece. The glissandos and chromatic scales make the first movement a delight for both the performer and the audience. The tight and mechanical section in the middle provides a nice change of pace, and the theme reappears at the end of the first movement. The second movement begins in a dream-like manner by the woodwinds, and is eventually developed broadly by the full orchestra. The third movement is light and fast, with another demanding cadenza that Argerich does so well. Towards the end the piano and the orchestra engage in an animated conversation and the work ends after the original theme makes its third appearance. It is a testament to Prokofiev’s prodigy that he could compose such a masterful, mature piece while still a student at the Conservatory of St. Petersburg.

Perhaps I can pause here and reflect a little on Argerich’s performance. She is a technical virtuoso who seems to get through the most difficult pieces without any appearance of struggling. In a couple of her prior performances I saw (the Carnegie Hall one mentioned above was the latest before this one), she was also a great interpreter of the music. This performance, however, seemed a little flat. Not because she couldn’t handle the pieces, but she didn’t seem to resonate as much with these pieces as she did with, say, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto. While I admire her technical skills, I was slightly disappointed at the overall effect. I may have been in the minority, given how ready the audience was to jump and give her a standing ovation.

The last work for the evening was Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor (op. 131), the last of his symphonies. I noticed that Rostropovich was conducting without a baton, perhaps in keeping with the gentle beginning of the symphony which soon developed into a small climax. The symphony was written with young listeners in mind, and the program notes point to a “child-like” theme which was easy enough to catch. Its first appearance was a disappointment, though it became more interesting as it got developed. The second movement also began gently, and its development section had a mysterious air to it. During the melodic interlude I noticed that Rostropovich picked up his baton again, and with it he brought the second movement to its climatic conclusion. While the maestro was catching his breath, I noticed all this coughing around me. Lincoln Center should emulate Carnegie Hall and provide its patrons with cough drops. During the third and relatively short third movement, Rostropovich did away with his baton again. There were nice segments played by various parts of the orchestra, and the march-like structure was pleasant to the ear. The tone of the work changed rather quickly as we got to the fourth movement, although lighter segments seemed to try to make their appearances every now and then. The atmosphere got quite ominous when the timpani reasserted itself in a different key, and the earlier child-like theme was now played in various minor keys, and the mournful xylophone brought a wave of sadness at the end – or what I thought was the end. For some reason Prokofiev didn’t want to end the symphony that way; as a coda we got a light and bright segment to conclude the work. I am not sure I understand why.

One can’t help but notice that the percussion section was having a lot of fun with this piece. You see the timpani player constantly tuning his drums for the next segment, and other percussionists walking from one instrument to the other, carrying the music. I think the modern composers created percussion as a profession. Most of the music from the baroque and classical periods call for only a timpani! It’s also fun for the audience, I must say.

My wife and I first saw Rostropovich playing the cello at Bailey Hall of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, probably in the late 1970s, while I was a graduate student. I don’t remember much of that event, except that he was very expressive, and that he had recently emigrated from Russia. If you read the Playbill biographical notes, you can’t but admire how he was a contemporary of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and how he took great risks in speaking out for freedom of his compatriots. At 78, it must take a lot of stamina to stand there and conduct for 90 minutes or so.

See the New York Times review of the same program performed on Wednesday 4/27/2005.