Monday, January 30, 2006

Nigel Kennedy Plays Vivaldi; Sydney Symphony Chamber Orchestra “All Stars”. 1/28/2006.

Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. Seat Box B40.

Concerto in A minor for violin, strings and harpsichord RV356 by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1742).
Concerto in D major for violin, strings and harpsichord RV230.
Concerto in B flat major for violin, oboe, strings and harpsichord RV548.
Concerto in D major for 2 violins, strings and harpsichord RV507.
Concerto in C major for 2 violins, strings and harpsichord RV511.
Concerto in G minor (Summer from the Four Seaons) for violin, strings and harpsichord RV315.

With the many extra pieces added to the published program, this ended up being a 3 hour concert (including a 25 minute intermission). Nigel Kennedy is a well-known violinist, his Four Seasons CD opened my eyes to new dimensions to Vivaldi’s music, thus I went to the concert with great expectations. Unfortunately, the concert was mostly a series of mediocre performances broken up by moments of brilliance. It was too bad as Kennedy could have chosen to take the concert more seriously rather than indulge in crowd-pleasing antics that detracted from the music.

I arrived in Sydney on Saturday January 28 to celebrate Chinese New Year with my mother and a couple of my siblings. I usually try to catch a couple of concerts while I am in town, and have tickets for tonight’s concert and a performance of Madama Butterfly later in the week. Sydney Opera House is well known for its “sails” design, and the concert hall is well laid out with most of the audience sitting close to the stage. I had a good view of the stage. For tonight’s concert, the chamber orchestra consisted of about 20 persons, with a harpsichord, a baroque guitar, and a lute.

There is no charitable way to describe Kennedy clothes other than bizarre. One of the coat sleeve is cut short, I guess it at least serve the purpose of not impeding the movement of his right arm. There is also this sash around his neck of unknown significance. I refuse out of principle to purchase a program (for $7.50) that contains mostly advertisements, so if there is an explanation for what he is wearing, it will continue to elude me. To me it’s just an aging artist making a feeble and failed attempt at retaining his youthful looks and outlook. The rest of the orchestra members were dressed more traditionally though. Kennedy also chose to talk to the audience a bit about each piece of music. What he said contained some useful information, but his attempts at humor didn’t work, in my judgment.

Kennedy began by acknowledging tonight was Chinese New Year Eve and played a “new year song” which was actually a communist liberation song. Some Chinese in the audience were appreciative, I found it condescending. It also started my negative view of the concert which was further reinforced by the first Vivaldi piece. The violin concerto in A minor is relatively simple; most violin students take it up during their third year of lessons. It can be enjoyable when brilliantly played. But any flaw will be noticed and greatly magnified. Kennedy’s antics made me wonder whether he chose to put more emphasis on moving around the stage and stomping his boots rather than on playing serious music.

Australian audiences seem to have no problems with applauding in the middle of a work, they demonstrated that after the first movement of the D major violin concerto. I guess that’s okay if it was really exceptional, but doing that as a matter of course is a bit much. How the movements interrelate can be important too. The cadenza for this used similar techniques as that of the first concerto. Even though it was done well, one began to wonder if there are other technical flourishes (harmonics, double stops, etc) that would be displayed tonight.

After this concerto, Kennedy told the audience about the “Manchester Sonatas” that were discovered in the early 1970s. Four movements (Largo/Larghetto, Courant, Gigue, and Gavotte) were played by the violin, harpsichord (basso continuo), guitar, cello and doubling bass. Vivaldi scholars may find the music of great significance, but they didn’t sound particular to me.

Shelfali Pryor was introduced by Kennedy as one of the greatest oboist. Surely he jested. The oboe was overwhelmed by the small orchestra, coming through only during moments when a reduced set of musicians was playing. By this time I was debating whether I should give up on the concert and go home. It was a combination of my desire to stay up to fight jet lag, a stubbornness that makes people finish bad novels, and the fact the ticket cost (Australian) $97 that kept me in my seat.

As an encore piece for the oboe soloist, Kennedy’s own composition “Melody on Wind” was played. It contains a few nice motifs, but they were repeated again and again until the audience was tired of the droning. It is better to leave the audience wanting for more than to make them ask when the piece is going to be put out of its misery. (Not unlike many of my blogs, come to think of it.)

After the intermission, Kennedy added Nos. 1, 8, and 6 of Bach’s 2 part inventions. The pieces are simple, very fast, and well known respectively. These were played with the orchestra’s principal cellist (Tracy). I do respect Kennedy for his willingness to share the stage with mediocre musicians (for tonight, the oboist and cellist).

My initial reaction to the second violin (in the 2 double violin concertos) wasn’t all that positive. Michael Dauth did improve as the program progressed and was able to match Kennedy phrase for phrase; well, most of the time anyway. These 2 double concertos helped tremendously in salvaging the concert. The Largo movement of the C major one, according to Kennedy, describes the unrequited love of Vivaldi for a beautiful woman passing by his studio in a gondola. I repeat that here suspecting it is a made up story. The cadenza was impressive and brilliantly played, but again it’s the same recipe of flying staccatos and arpeggios.

The Bach allegro was then added to the program. It should be simple and clear architecturally, but the performers went back to sounding muddled.

Kennedy described an interesting fact about the Four Seasons: they were not composed at the same time but put together later, probably for commercial reasons. Nonetheless, “Summer” was generally done well, and showcased some of the techniques Kennedy is well known for: aggressive, fast, and brilliant sounds. At times he was a bit too ambitious with the speed and intonation suffered as a result.

As the evening’s encore they played another Kennedy composition “inspired by Jimmy Hendrix”. I am no Hendrix fan so I couldn’t tell how much inspiration there was. Again the piece contained interesting motifs made unbearable by endless repeats like the earlier “wind” piece. Kennedy led the orchestra off the stage Pied Piper style, and I thought it was a good time to head back to the hotel also.

Monday, January 16, 2006

New York Philharmonic. Jonathan Nott – guest conductor; Joshua Bell – violin. 1/14/2006.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Preferred Orchestra. Seat DD19.


Violin Concerto, “The Red Violin” (1997 – 2003) by John Corigliano (b. 1938).
An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64 (1911-15) by R. Strauss (1864-1949).

I watched the movie “The Red Violin” on TV sometime ago. It traced the 300-year history of a violin from its creation in 17th century Italy (Amati, Stradivari, and Guarneri are violin makers that come to mind) to its auction in Montreal. Morritz (played by Samuel L Jackson) was the bidder who discovered that the violin varnish had the blood of the violin maker’s wife who had just died. I don’t remember much of the story other than a mad British violinist, and that it was hidden during the Chinese cultural revolution so it wouldn’t be destroyed by the red guards as a bourgeois cultural relic. The violin music in the film was played brilliantly by Joshua Bell. The film came out in 1998

To the original Chaconne (a piece built on a series of chords) composed for the movie, John Corigliano added three additional movements (Pianissimo Scherzo, Andante Flautando, and Accelerando Finale) to create a complete virtuoso violin concerto. Even having seen the movie, I still had trouble associating the music with the story. This piece can be enjoyed as a purely virtuoso piece anyway. It asks a lot from the soloist, double stops, double stop glissandos, and double harmonics; speed and intonation are taken for granted. The orchestration for the concerto is complex, although they reduced the string section considerably. The 1713 “Gibson ex Huberman” Stradivarius sounded brilliant and carried very well. Bell did have a shaky entrance (double stops) and sometimes the orchestra simply overwhelmed the solo violin during its runs.

As someone who plays the violin, I was more fascinated by the sounds and techniques than the music itself. The cadenza in the first movement was interesting, especially at the end with the violin using the wood of the bow and pizzicato answered by different sections of the orchestra. The second movement was short and contained some difficult double harmonics passages. It sounded a bit discombobulated, though. In the third movement there was supposed to be this passage where the violin sounded like a flute in a duet with an alto flute. I frankly didn’t catch it; Anne thought she heard it for a fleeting moment. The fourth movement had a violin line that sounded very baroque and etude-like, but the steady beat in the background gave an overall strange effect. This piece needs to be listened to multiple times before it can be fully appreciated.

There was a long pause after the first movement so late comers could be seated. This is the first time I experienced this sort of disruption at a New York Philharmonic concert. This was inconsiderate to the performers and unfair to those in the audience who made it on time. I hope they at least got the performers’ consent before they did so. One time I sat out the entire first half because I missed the opening. And the coughing. The program notes mentioned Ricola cough drops quite prominently, but the advertising budget evidently did not include easy access to the actual cough drops. I looked for them and couldn’t find any.

The program notes contain an interesting paragraph on how Richard Strauss originally wanted to make the Alpine Symphony into some sort of an “Antichrist” declaration (perhaps more “God is dead?”) but ended up simply with a symphonic poem depicting one man’s day trip up the mountain and back. The continuous piece contains over 20 episodes depicting the various events during the day. The episodes include: sunrise, ascent, stream, waterfall, glacier, dangerous moments, mists, storm, and sunset. (A detailed list can be found in the notes.)

The full orchestra was employed for the symphony. To start, there was a large contingent of brass instruments depicting a hunting party off stage. Every conceivable instrument was used in the symphony, including cowbells (which Anne pointed out during the “Pastures” episode), a wind machine and an organ. The strings returned in full force, increasing the pairs of outside first violins to six from four for the earlier violin piece. We were seated in the Orchestra section; while the seats were closer to the stage, we didn’t have as good a bird’s eye view compared to what we had while in the first or second tier, so we missed a lot of the visual action in the orchestra, particularly the percussion section. There was a huge piece of metal plate hanging from the ceiling, though. We had high expectations of the thunder sound it would make, but it was much softer than I expected.

Nonetheless, this was a very enjoyable piece. One could easily imagine how the different episodes depict the different scenarios. Think Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. For a first time listener (like us), one would probably be making the wrong associations. But that should not detract from the enjoyment: so what if the waterfalls were mistaken for a ghost? With additional hearings these associations would be clearer, It takes real desire and discipline to find the time to listen to this 56-minute piece though.

A few words about the conductor, who made his debut with the New York Philharmonic for these performances. He is British born and made his conducting debut in 1988. He conducted the Strauss piece without music, which is very impressive, considering the complexities of the piece. He used a lot of wrist movements, resulting in gestures that appeared slightly unsettling. The orchestra produced a very nice sound, though.

This was a memorable concert. I am glad we went.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

New York Philharmonic - Lorin Maazel, conductor; James Ehnes, Violin. 1/7/2006.

Avery Fischer Hall at Lincoln Center; Second Tier, Seat BB21.


Overture to The Flying Dutchman (1840-41, rev. 1860) by Wagner (1813-83).
Violin Concerto (1936-39, rev. 1943/50) by Walton (1902-83).
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1884-85) by Dvorak (1841-1904).

I had never heard the Walton and Dvorak pieces before. I did read up on the program notes beforehand and knew Walton wrote the violin concerto for Jascha Heifetz and it is considered a virtuoso and intimate composition. Dvorak’s seventh symphony is not as popular as his ninth (New World) but is considered to be on par with works of Beethoven and Brahms. I didn’t know the violinist Ehnes either. He was born in Canada, about 29 years old, and has built up quite a resume playing with well known musicians and orchestras.

Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” is his fourth opera and the first to be well-known. It is a mythical story about a Dutchman condemned to sail the seas until he finds a faithful lover. The overture is quite long at about 11 minutes, contains the themes of the main characters, and is supposed to evoke images of waves and oceans. Overall, I thought the performance lacked dynamic range, and the horns were at times unsteady. I am not sure it painted a nautical theme either.

The Walton concerto is in three movements: Andante tranquillo, Presto capricciosa alla napolitana and Vivace). My overall impression is indeed it is a virtuoso piece without being overtly so. The concerto is well balanced between the soloist and the orchestra. The program notes said Walton’s music was greatly influenced by Elgar; unfortunately I couldn’t hear the similarities. Not knowing Elgar well didn’t help. Even though a Stradivarius (1715 “Ex Marsick”) was used, and despite the promising early beginning, the solo violin was oftentimes drowned out by the orchestra. Somehow I got the feeling for various reasons the soloist wasn’t into the piece.

The Dvorak symphony lived up to its billing: it indeed sounded “taut and rigorous”. The four movements are Allegro maestoso, Poco adagio, Vivace – Poco meno mosso, and Allegro. There was no break between the third and fourth movements. I continue to be surprised how traditional Dvorak’s music is compared to his contemporaries (e.g., Mahler, although Mahler was younger). There is no percussion except for the timpani. The themes are clear and well-defined. Only exception was in the third movement where multiple themes were presented simultaneously. Unfortunately the orchestra sounded a bit muddled during those episodes. The development of the symphony form from Beethoven to Brahms to Dvorak, and even to Rachmaninoff, seemed to be gradual. And then we have composers such as Mahler and Shostakovich who seemed to take off in completely different directions. A fascinating topic to explore.

Tonight’s concert was okay, but not great. It was quite well attended, though.

See also the New York Times review. The reviewer had a completely different impression of how well the brass played in Wagner’s Overture.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

2006 First Night Boston. 12/31/2005.

NEC Youth Symphony, “The Story of Peer Gynt”. St. Paul’s Cathedral, Boston.
Opera unMet, “Aida”. First Baptist Church of Boston.

Anne and I are staying in Boston for New Year’s Eve, and we decided to attend a couple of the 2006 First Night concerts. It had been unusually warm this week, although the temperature was at freezing tonight, and about ½" of snow fell in the evening, making it a rather enjoyable winter evening to be out and about. We attended two 40-minute concerts.

The two Peer Gynt suites by Edvard Grieg are quite well-known, except before today I didn’t know the story behind them. Tonight’s NEC (New England Conservatory) Youth Symphony performance had a story-teller (O’Callahan) to do some story-telling during the program. Peer Gynt was a lazy day-dreamer whose fantasies were set into music. I had no idea the different movements of the suites were so well matched to the legend of Peer Gynt. Anne had a much better knowledge of the music and knew about the mountain king and the trolls.

The program began and ended with Viennese New Year music (a waltz and a march), and had an “Auld Lang Syne” sing-along. The young people in the orchestra all played quite well. The orchestra could use a bit more dynamic range in the performance, though. This was a well-attended concert inside a nice Episcopalian church.

“Opera unMet” is a catchy name for a group of artists consisting of Aida, Amneris, Rademas, two priestesses, a narrator and a pianist. I wish they had passed out some program notes so we could get to know the performers a bit. The venue was the First Baptist Church, a very old church located on Commonwealth Avenue in Back Bay.

About a dozen arias from the opera were chosen for tonight. With the narration, a rather complete story was told beginning with Rademas singing his love for Aida (Celeste Aida) to the final trio “O terra, addio.” The three principal singers all had good voices, although Rademas’s was a bit on the weak side. I couldn’t tell if these were professionals, but they certainly held the audience with their performance. I was surprised they needed the music though. In any case, the songs are quite demanding, and these folks put on two 45-minute programs for the evening, and every now and then the strain showed.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help remarking to Anne this was quite a way to start the New Year, listening to a story where two people got buried alive under a temple.