Thursday, October 19, 2006

New York Philharmonic – David Robertson, conductor; Gil Shaham, violin. October 14, 2006.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center, Seat AA16 ($59).


Overture to Candide (1956) by Bernstein (1918-90).
Concerto in E-flat, “Dumbarton Oaks” (1937-38) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Violin Concerto No. 2 in D major, K. 211 (1775) by Mozart (1756-91).
Violin Concerto in D (1931) by Stranvinsky.
Symphony No. 36 in C major, “Linz,” K. 425 (1783) by Mozart.

This was the second concert of the day. And there were two Mozart pieces on the program. This, after sitting through a three-hour (plus intermission) Mozart opera earlier in the day. I was worried that it may be a bit much. Turns out it was.

On the anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s death, the orchestra played the composer piece without a conductor. Sheryl Maples did start the orchestra off with a few swings of her arm. The familiar piece was brilliantly played, and the audience was appreciative.

Robertson appeared to conduct Stravinsky Concerto. It was performed by an ensemble of about 16 players. This is a rather complex piece, but one can’t help but wonder – especially after the Candide performance – why a conductor was necessary. Stravinsky compares this composition to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The similarity, alas, eludes me. The first movement (Tempo giusto) was delightful but monotonous sounding at times. The Allegretto movement had more give and take among the various instruments. There were some nice flute passages. The last movement (Con moto) was march-like. Dumbarton Oaks refers to an impressive 19th-century mansion in Washington, D.C.

One would think Mozart’s violin concertos would be part of an orchestra’s standard repertoire. I was surprised to find out tonight’s performance was a New York Philharmonic premiere. Gil Shaham performed the piece on the 1699 “Countess Polignac” Stradivarius. When I heard him in June, 2005, I mentioned the violin didn’t sound as brilliant as I expected, but the Mozart piece carried beautifully above the orchestra tonight. He had some intonation problems with the first movement (Allegro moderato) but played the cadenza beautifully. He still moves about the stage quite a bit – obviously hasn’t read my review yet. After the second movement (Andante) I found the Rondeau-Allegro particularly delightful.

Shaham came back after the intermission to play Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. The concerto consists of four movements: Toccata, Aria I, Aria II and Capriccio. Stravinsky actually specifies the tempo also, I guess he had a specific way he wanted the music played. Against the much larger orchestra, Shaham sounded much weaker. He actually needed the music which surprised me a bit. The first movement showcased good interplay between the soloist and the orchestra. Aria I contained a 3-note theme, nice harmonics, and detached notes. Aria II started with a strong statement from the violin which had a prominent role. The last movement was energetic, required much virtuosity from the violinist, and had many abrupt change of moods. I sense one’s appreciation of this concerto will greatly increase with additional listenings. An interesting note: Stravinsky was not a fan of the violin concerto genre.

Mozart’s Symphony began slowing (Adagio; Allegro spiritoso), and I was sure at a couple of occasions some jumped the gun. While it was a nice composition, I was feeling a bit sated with Mozart by this time. The second movement (Andante) was pastoral sounding and painted a picture of a countryside. The third movement (Menuetto; Trio) continued without pause to the Presto movement. Overall this is a nice Symphony that sounds very similar to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

With the addition of the Bernstein piece, we were not done until about 10:10 pm. It made for a long day – we left the house at 11 am and didn’t get back until after 11 pm, but I’m glad we went.

Metropolitan Opera – Mozart’s Idomeneo. October 14, 2006.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle, Seat B118 ($125).

Conductor – James Levine; Ilia – Nicole Heaston, Idamante – Kristine Jepson, Elettra – Olga Makarina, Idomeneo – Ben Heppner.

Story: The Cretan king Idomeneo captures Ilia of Troy and sends her to Crete. She is rescued from a storm by the king’s son Idamante and falls in love with him. Princess Elettra flees Argos to take refuge in Crete, and also falls in love with Idamante. On his way home, Idomeneo runs into a storm, and promises Neptune he will sacrifice the first man he meets if he survives. Idomeneo comes ashore to find Idamante seeking solitude, having been misinformed of his father’s death. Idomeneo hopes to avoid carrying out his vow by banishing Idamante without telling him the reason, which causes great sorrow in his son. Eventually Idamante finds out, and demands to be sacrificed. As he is about to be killed, Neptune speaks and proclaims that the alternative is for Idomeneo to yield the throne to Idamante and Ilia. Elettra is horrified and dies.

The story, as I summarized it, sounds a bit disjoint, but it reflected my understanding of the plot after seeing the opera and reading the program synopsis a couple of times. I have seen several of Mozart’s operas (Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, and this one), they all seem to have plots that are not particularly captivating. Some of the "monologues", especially the ones by Idomeneo and Elettra, were a bit long.

The Met usually has relatively impressive sets, while the columns are quite tall, the same set (with slight backstage variations) was used for all three acts of the opera. For Act 2, which is supposed to be a seashore setting, all they did was to add a few white sheets to represent sails. The stage designers must have been great fans of symmetry. The two halves seem to be mirror images of one another. Even where people stand is balanced. I don't particularly care for it.

And the costumes. The story is set during the Trojan War. I am not a historian, but what Elettra wore looks like a formal gown during Victorian times, and the soldiers’ costumes look more Roman than Greek. The chorus members looked like French peasants. All in all, it seemed anachronistic and hodge-podge.

Prince Idamante’s part was sung by a mezzo-soprano. During intermission some music student Anne ran into (waiting in line to buy coffee) explains the range is beyond most tenors and is thus often played by a mezzo-soprano. I just find it awkward, unbelievable, and confusing. The singing in and of itself was good, and one is supposed to suspend reality, but they weren’t enough to get me past thinking it as being ridiculous. Surely Mozart could have written equally great music for a “regular” tenor. The Elettra death scene, while funny, was a bit incongruous also.

The music is good. The orchestra played well, the singing was excellent. However, the music is not enough to overcome the disjoint story, simplistic staging, weird costumes, and confusing roles. This is an opera you can just listen to on the radio and not miss much.

The opera is being staged in Germany (Berlin, I think), and is causing a great stir because of the staging. There were threats directed against the opera house. I simply can’t understand how the production design people can turn this into a controversial affair, or why people would be so offended.

See also the New York Times review of the performance.