Thursday, September 28, 2006

Westfield Symphony Orchestra – Puccini’s Turandot. September 28, 2006

PNC Arts Center, Holmdel, NJ, Right Rear section (Free).

Conductor – David Wroe; New York City Opera, Monmouth Civic Chorus, and Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company; Turandot – Othalie Graham, Calaf – Carlo Scibelli, Liu – Julianne Borg, Timur – Kevin Maynor.

Story: Prince Calaf, who just reunited with his father Timor and the slave girl Liu, is smitten with Turandot’s beauty and is determined to win her as his bride. To do so, Calaf has to solve three puzzles given by Turandot; failure to do so would mean death. After successfully solving the three puzzles (hope, blood, and Turandot being the answers), Calaf gives the princess a chance to get out of the marriage: she can kill him if she can guess his name by daybreak. Turandot tries to find out the Prince’s name by torturing Liu and Timor. Liu, who has been in love with Calaf since he showed her kindness a long time ago, commits suicide after claiming only she knows the name. The Prince further puts his fate in Turandot’s hands by telling her his name. Moved, Turandot announces the Prince’s name as “Love”.

We have lived in New Jersey since 1979, except for a couple of years in Hong Kong and a year in California, yet this was the first time we went to the Arts Center. I know it as a venue for rock concerts; evidently every now and then one can catch a classical music performance. The Center must seat up to 5,000 people, and it was about half-filled for tonight’s event.

My impression of the performance was amateurish, although the result was generally satisfactory. The orchestra and chorus each consisted of about 60 members, the soloists mostly sang the music, and some of the scenes were acted out by the dance troupe.

Sometimes I feel “Turandot” should be re-titled “Liu”. The slave girl certainly had more memorable arias, and Borg delivered the two well-known ones (in Acts 1 and 3) with feeling and precision. Her performance was by far the best among the soloists. The other two characters mostly shouted out their lines. Scibelli (as Calaf) every now and then struggled with his intonation. I felt a great sense of relief when he successfully sang “Nessun Dorma”: it had a wobbly beginning, but he managed the last notes well. Turandot’s arias were not easily hummed, which was a pity for the role.

The orchestra and chorus were generally quite good, despite confusion every now and then, and several miscues. Saying that the “world-class” orchestra “rivals any in the New York metropolitan area” (as in the program notes) was a bit much though. Indeed, I play the same music as (name your concert violinist).

It was quite interesting to have dancers perform some of the scenes. I find the ones depicting the riddles and Liu’s death particularly enjoyable. (Anne pointed out the riddles to me.) We were seated too far back to really appreciate the dancing, though.

Perhaps some of the loudness was attributable to the sound system, which was particularly problematic. It sounded tinny and the occurrences of loud feedback were too frequent for a professional venue like the Arts Center. The lack of projected English subtitles didn't help either. It was difficult to follow the story unless one was familiar with the opera.

A good opera performance captures one’s imagination. A whisper can hold the rapt attention of the audience. Unfortunately those moments were not to be found tonight.

In any case, Turandot is an opera easily enjoyed, with several great arias, a generally good storyline, and several passages based on popular Chinese folk melodies. I am still confused whether it is a comedy or a tragedy, though. Calaf’s success and happiness follow a bit too closely Liu’s self-sacrifice.

Perhaps my real feeling about tonight is the realization that it is often worth it to pay $100 or more for an opera performance in New York City.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor; Itzhak Perlman, Violin. September 16, 2006.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Center, Seat AA109 ($63).


Sebastian im Traum, Salzburger Nachtmusik auf eine Dichtung von Georg Trakl (Dream of Sebastian, Salzburg Night-Music on a poem by Georg Trakl; 2003-2004) by Hans Werner Henze (b. 1926).
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1864-67) by Max Bruch (1838-1920).
Rapsodie espangnole (Spanish Rhapsody, 1907) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).
L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird): Suite for Orchestra (1919) by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Tonight’s concert marked the new 2006/2007 season for us. The program was quite diverse, containing both familiar pieces and a premiere performance.

This was the first time I heard of (and heard) Hanze, a German now living in Italy. The program notes call him “one of the most important opera composers of our time.” In the composers words, the work tries to follow the poem, referring “to the (Catholic) melancholy there, to the Salzburg temperatures and perfumes, to the rustic Baroque, to the biblical, to the wooden crucifix, to the nearness of death, to the moonlight, to Traklish evening sonatas.” Unfortunately I didn’t get any of that. (The actual poem was more interesting, although to be fair, I read it a few times.) The low rumble and the detached notes that began the piece did convey aimless wandering, though. As with a lot of contemporary music, the percussion section was huge, including a piano and two harps. The piece lasted about 15 minutes, and I couldn’t help thinking of Ravel’s remark “The orchestra’s too large for the number of bars.” (Quoted later in the program in reference to Ravel’s own composition.)

Bruch’s first violin concerto defines the composer, who was younger than Brahms by five years and is destined to always remain in Brahms’ shadow. Perlman’s performance of this popular piece was very enjoyable. However, I found the runs a bit “mushed” and the dynamic range a bit limited. In general the violin (naturally a Stradivarius, the “Soil” built in 1714 Perlman bought from Yehudi Mennhin in 1986) projected very well over the orchestra, which made the flaws more puzzling. The three movements (Prelude: Allegro moderato; Adagio; Finale: Allegro energico) were played through without pauses, and by my watch it took about 29 minutes, longer than the 24 minutes listed in the program, and much longer than the 20 minutes or so of the Heifetz performance on my iPod.

Bruch started to work on this concerto in 1857, did most of the work on it between 1864 and 1866, and sought advice from Joseph Joachim. According to the program notes, when Joachim was asked to characterize the four most famous German concertos in his repertoire – by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch, and Brahms – he insisted that Bruch’s was “the richest and the most seductive.”

True to the title, the Spanish Rhapsody was very Spanish, and very Ravelian. The first movement (Prelude to Night) began with a simple four-note theme repeated by various sections of the orchestra. The second movement (Malaguena) was short and contained a nice solo by the English Horn. The third movement (Habanera) was equally short and was the subject of the earlier quote about too large an orchestra. The English Horn had a few lines that were played beautifully. The Festival movement concluded the piece.

Stravinsky composed the original ballet music in 1909-1910. The chance came to the young artist rather by accident: the composer commissioned by Serge Diaghilev (of Ballets Russes) procrastinated on the request. The Suite performed tonight was created in 1919. The story involves Prince Ivan wandering through the evil monarch King Kashchei’s garden. There the Prince captures a Firebird which he agrees to free after it gives him a magic tail-feather. The Prince then happens upon 13 princesses; the most beautiful of them, acting under Kashchei’s spell, lures him to a spot where Kashchei’s demonic guards can ensnare him. Instead, the Prince uses the feather to summon the Firebird that leads the Prince to smash the egg that gives the evil monarch his power. Thus liberated, the Princess marries the Prince.

In the Suite, the story is told in five movements: The Firebird and its Dance, Variation of the Firebird; The Princesses’ Khorovod (Round-Dance); Infernal Dance of King Kaschchei; Lullaby; and Finale. I am quite familiar with a couple of the movements, and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. The piccolo had a few interesting parts.

On our way home, there was a disabled subway train at the 59th street station. We left the subway, walked about ten blocks before we managed to grab a taxi to Penn Station. The train back home was stopped at Newark for a while to wait for the police (no idea what happened). It was not a good day for train travel. Nonetheless, tonight was a good start to the season.

The New York Times reivew contains an interesting perspective on the Hanze piece.