Friday, May 26, 2006

New York Philharmonic - David Zinman, Conductor; Yo-Yo Ma, Cello, Colin Jacobsen, Violin. May 13, 2006.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. First Tier Box. Seat 20F4.

Rhapsody No. 1 (Folk Dances) for Cello and Orchestra (1928-29) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, "Double," Op. 102 (1887) by Brahms (1833-97).
Naive and Sentimental Music (1998-99) by John Adams (b. 1947).

Tonight’s concert was one of those rare sold-out events for the New York Philharmonic. I am sure Yo-Yo Ma’s appearance had a lot to do with it: proof that big names do draw big crowds.

I had not heard any of the pieces performed tonight, and was looking especially at Adams with some trepidation. Bartok’s and Brahms’ pieces turned out to be quite enjoyable. But I have to say the Adams’ piece was beyond my grasp, if there was anything to grasp.

Ma, a Paris-born Chinese American, is considered one of the most popular classical musicians. Lately he has branched off to establish the “Silk Road Project” to study traditions along the trade route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. One of his colleagues in the project is Jacobsen, the violinist tonight. Zinman is about 70 years old, and is the music director of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich.

The Bartok piece consists of two parts: Prima parte (lassu): Moderato and Second parte (friss): Allegretto moderato. The program also mentions Laurence Kaptain on the Cimbalom, a strung percussion instrument that looks oriental to me (see photo). The first part was introduced by a nice melody by the cello, followed by the orchestra. It contains several oft-repeated motifs. The cello sang beautifully at the higher registers. The program notes say Ma has two cellos, a Stradivarious (1712 Davidoff) and a 1733 Montagnana. I wonder which one Ma used today. The second part had a light beginning but got quite heavy and chaotic in the middle. The ending appeared to be tagged on as an after thought. The melodies were written in the tradition of Magyar folk dances. Bartok had written violin/piano, violin/orchestra, and cello/piano arrangements; the orchestra used the violin/orchestra part. Fair enough, I say.

The Concerto was classical Brahms. The first movement (Allegro) started with a short orchestral introduction followed by a cello solo, another orchestra passage was then followed by a violin solo and then a duet. The violin, a 1696 Guarnerius, complemented the cello very well. Although this work was composed for the violin, the cello and the orchestra, I sensed Ma was the center of attention. Was that the work, or the artist? The second movement (Andante) contained several nice melodies, but was played a bit too loudly in my opinion. The third movement (Vivace non troppo) began in a scherzo-like manner with a light staccato. Here the violin was more prominent. The second theme sounded quite serious, but the violin seemed to be mechanically pounding out its part at times. All in all it was a good performance of a lovely piece.

There is an interesting story behind the concerto. Brahms had been good friends with Joseph Joachim, the latter having helped open Schumann’s door to a young Brahms. Their friendship of 30 odd years was strained by Joachim’s belief that Brahms worked against him in Joachim’s divorce from his wife. Brahms wrote this concerto as a means to rebuild their friendship, which did happen to a certain extent. The cellist Brahms had in mind was Robert Hausman, who was also a devoted Brahmsian. Perhaps Brahms was trying to accomplish two objectives simultaneously, and also to make the possible rejection of Joachim less intimidating?

Quite a few people left during the intermission. I guess they did come to see Yo-yo Ma. In any case, Zinman talked to the audience and compared the Adams piece as the sights and sounds one might encounter on a long voyage on the QE2. The music goes everywhere and stops every now and then to, say, take in a meal. The first movement (Na├»ve and Sentimental Music) is sinewy and whining, with multiple climaxes building up to a final, tremendous one. The second movement (Mother of the Man) reminds of Copland’s prairies, and makes use of five Japanese temple bowls (which Anne described as golden George Foreman grills). The last movement (Chained to the Rhythm) is self-explanatory.

For good measure, the music also calls for a guitar (amplified) and many many percussion instruments, including a vibraphone played with a bow. Sure enough the music followed Zinman’s description, and was at times rigid or fluid. The first movement was 19 minutes long (I am sure Zinman said it was 25 minutes long), after which quite a few people walked out. The second movement did sound prairie-like, but not Copland. The third movement didn’t quite go the way I expected. It wasn’t chained to the rhythm in the “marching band” sense, but rather there was always a steady beat somewhere.

In any case, I find the music forgettable. Many in the audience agreed: some even chose to walk out during the music, which is incredibly rude in my judgment. Perhaps Adams succeeded in proving that music can be constructed on a theoretical basis, but my question is “why?” Adams dedicated this piece to Esa-Pekka Salonen. Perhaps the reception in Los Angeles would be better? I used to subscribe to the LA Philharmonic (when I lived in that area), and let me say I doubt it.

See the New York Times review on a different program featuring Ma and Zinman. The audience there didn’t like the Adams piece either.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

New York Philharmonic – Sir Colin Davis, Conductor; Soile Isokoski, Soprano; Mitsuko Uchida, Piano. May 6, 2006.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier, Seat AA109.

Overture to La clemenza di Tito, K. 621 (1791) by Mozart (1756-91).
“Ch’io mi scordi di te? … Non temer, amato bene,” Scene and Rondo, K. 505 (1786) by Mozart.
Piano Concerto in D major, “Coronation,” K.537 (1788) by Mozart.
Luonnotar, Op. 70 (1913) by Sibelius (1865-1957).
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (1904-07) by Sibelius.

Tonight’s concert certainly had a few big names. Colin Davis is a well-known British conductor who has been around forever. Mitsuko Uchida is always a dependable concert pianist. This is the first time I encounter the Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski.

Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito tells of the story of the first century Roman Emperor Tito and was written to commemorate the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. It was written in September, 1791, during that time Mozart was also working on his Requiem and The Magic Flute. Mozart’s fortunes seemed to be turning around, but tragically he died in December, 1791. The overture was very Mozartian and enjoyable, with good dynamics, although the piece was played a bit too softly.

“You ask me to forget you? … Fear nothing, my beloved.” is about 10 minutes in duration. The ensemble consists of a reduced size orchestra, a soprano, and a pianist. It is interesting and shows good balance. Isokoski has good volume, projects well, but didn’t show a lot of dynamic range.

Uchida put on a different top for the piano concerto (maybe she dressed in layers and just shed one of them). It should be noted this Concerto was written for a different coronation of Leopold II (this time as Holy Roman Emperor). After a rather lengthy introduction (Allegro), the piano played the first theme which in typical Mozartian fashion contained many repeated notes. Uchida uses minimal pedaling to produce a crisp sound that is most enjoyable. The dynamic range was a bit too narrow, though. After the first movement, Davis held the orchestra so the coughing could subside. The clapping started by some in the audience was cut off by Uchida’s raised hand. The second movement (Larghetto) began with a rather familiar motif which was answered by the orchestra. The third movement (Allegretto) also contained some familiar tunes. This was a satisfying performance of a Mozart concerto with a degree of clarity and crispness that is refreshing.

The dark mood of the second half of the program is a strong contrast to that of the first half. A frequent listener of Sibelius might guess that the conductor eventually committed suicide during one of these dark Finnish winter days. In actuality, he stopped writing music when he was 62 and lived for another 30 or so years.

Luonnotar is adapted from the Finnish mythology Kalevala, and is about 8 minutes long. Thus it was a bit surprising that the Finnish singer would need her music for this piece (she didn’t need it earlier). The story is a bit complicated but tells of the creation of the cosmos. The harps (2 of them) and timpani (2 sets) evoke the images of the ocean and the waves. The broken phrases sung by the soprano underscore the feeling of despair. It is also interesting that the singer is the narrator rather than the subject. Isokoski’s voice was impressive, even against the full orchestra. I actually thought she was a bit too loud at times.

Both the orchestration and form of Sibelius’s third symphony are quite traditional. The only percussion instrument is the timpani. The first movement (Allegro moderato) started with the low strings and contained some nice melodies. The second movement (Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto) had a pleasant beginning contrasting nicely with the dark first movement. An interlude by woodwind and low strings seems to be on a different tempo and produced an unsettling effect. The motif was repeated multiple times in different sections of the orchestra. Even though the orchestra launched into the third movement (Moderato – Allegro man non tanto) with enthusiasm, it was doomed by the coughing in the audience. Nonetheless, the dramatic movement left no doubt that this is 20th century music.

This is the first time I saw Colin Davis; Anne had seen her in Hong Kong decades ago. He conducts with energy, and seemed to manage the rather long concert with ease. Unfortunately, the nature of tonight’s piece was such that I couldn’t form an opinion of how well a job he did.

The Lincoln Center Plaza had a huge crowd lining up to see the magician David Blaine inside a fish bowl, attempting to break some kind of world record. He eventually failed after holding his breath for about seven minutes at the end of his seven-day soak in the bowl.

See also the New York Times review of the concert.