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.