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.