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.