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.