Saturday, December 15, 2007

Hong Kong China Philharmonic Orchestra – Lim Kek-han, Conductor/Violinist. December 8, 2007.

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall. Seat Front Stall D24 (HK$180).


Overture to Rosamnude by Schubert

Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 by Brahms

1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky

Yellow River Cantata by Xian Xinghai

This was the fourth concert we attended this week. We again found out about it in the newspaper we read on the way over from Los Angeles. David and Ruby also came along; they got into town the evening before. We had a quick bite at the Macau Restaurant beforehand.

The best way to describe this concert was that it was an unmitigated disaster; this is particularly true of the first half. Exactly as David predicted. David said he listened to the conductor play the violin a few years back, and said he wasn't quite up to job then. I was joking he had had that many years to practice, so must have improved a lot. Was I wrong!

Now, how was it a disaster? Let me count the ways.

Tuning. Usually after the cacophony of the different instrument trying to line up with the A from the oboe, there is this sweet harmonious sound that comes from the orchestra. You could definitely the some instruments were not quite there, but then the players set their instruments down. There is no clock that makes it necessary for the orchestra ready by a certain time. Now with this group, you may need another 15 minutes. This problem plaques the soloist as well. After the first movement (of the Brahms Concerto), we were quite sure his violin was out of tune, and he was struggling with his intonation already. He didn't see the need to retune his violin, to our utter disbelief.

Technical ability. The music was beyond the technical ability of many of the players. This starts with the soloist who had difficulty with many of the passages, and completely butchered the double stops. Now Brahms isn't an easy piece, but at least one should be able to do the second movement with some semblance of artistry. He should have gone for Mozart or Vivaldi instead. Since the Principal Conductor (Lin) was the soloist, the concertmaster conducted the orchestra. He conducted to the extent that he kept the beat, but the orchestra was certainly confused. During the 1812 Overture the triangle player managed to come in just a fraction late (which would mean she was reacting rather than anticipating). The funny thing was her colleague then worked with her by teaching her how to rock to the rhythm – amazingly, it worked. Anne knows this “teacher” from her company's Hong Kong office.

Precision. I suspect they did not work on this at all. When your players can't even count properly, it would be difficult to ask them to be precise. A glaring example was the last note of Schubert's overture where the concertmaster played it short while everyone else played it long. Also, during the 1812, there was great confusion for a couple of measures where a couple of section were a half measure or so off. They eventually fixed it.

Yellow River” is a well known piece among the Chinese. It was written in the early 1900s but has been adopted (some might say hijacked) by left-leaning folks as a patriotic song. In my college days it was associated with Communist China and was quite popular during the days students were protesting against Japan on the ownership of Spratly Islands. After these many years, the political associated is greatly diminished. The cantata nonetheless is still quite popular – it is an enjoyable piece. The performance was okay, the soloists (except one) projected reasonably well. I had never listened to the entire piece, so was glad to be able to do it.

At the end of the program, the orchestra and chorus played a couple of encores. The conductor bowed and then launched into them. They repeated one of the songs (No. 6) in “Yellow River” and played a (I'm sure) Sousa piece. We suspected the conductor was afraid if he went backstage everyone would get up and leave.

The question I have is: Do they know they are bad? I look back on my high school and university orchestra days, and wonder if we were that bad. No, we couldn't have been this bad!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – David Atherton, Conductor; Viviane Hagner, Violin. December 7, 2007.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Seat Stalls F5 (HK$240).

Program – Pure Sibelius (1865 - 1957)

Karelia Suite, Op. 11 (1893)

Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47

Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104

Finlandia, Op. 26 (1900)

This turned out to be the third of the four concerts Anne & I attended during our week or so in Hong Kong. We again discovered the event late, and were surprised that tickets were available. The auditorium is on the small side, and it was about 80% full (not counting the sections that were left empty). We went with my sister Ling and her husband Wally.

Our seats were in the sixth row, a bit to the left. So we had a good view of the soloist, the conductor, and the orchestra (at least the first violins). Seating upfront actually gives you a limited view of the entire orchestra, but it is also fun to see clearly how the artists approached the performance.

One would expect a pure Sibelius event to be quite depressing, given the reputation of the composer. It wasn't the case this evening, though. Some of that was the programming, and some of that, alas, was how the conductor chose to interpret the music (incorrectly, in my opinion).

Sibelius composed eight pieces based on the Kalevala legends for a pageant; he subsequently destroyed four of the eight pieces, and published three of the pieces as the Karelia Suite, so named for the region where the legends mostly came from. The three pieces are: Intermezzo, Ballade, and Alla Marcia. We have heard other works by Sibelius based on that region also. I couldn't hear the timpani at first, although the balance seemed to improve as the performance went on. Nonetheless, I thought in general the performance didn't sound “Sibelian” enough and didn't quite depict what was described in the program notes. (E.g., there wasn't much bombardment coming across in the Alla Marcia movement.)

Much has been written about Sibelius as a violinist, and today's program notes mentioned that he actually was rejected by the Vienna Philharmonic as a violinist.

Hagner looked much younger than the photos shown in the program. I had never heard of her, and didn't know what to expect. In general, she acquitted herself very well. Technically she was superb, despite the initial jitters. The first movement was a bit disjoint and unfocused, but the third movement was very well done. Her face at times showed more pain than the music, though. She will be playing with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony next year.

The symphony was surprisingly upbeat and relatively simple in structure; there wasn't this continuous moving forward that I have come to expect of Sibelius's work. The four movements are: Allegro molto moderato; Allegretto moderato; Poco vivace; and Allegro molto. The first three were quite short and ended unexpectedly; the fourth movement did have more of a “fanfare” feel to it.

Finlandia is always a crowd pleaser. one of the melodies has been adopted as the tune for the hymn “Be Still my Soul.” Given the sentiment of patriotism the original composition is supposed to incite, one wonders if it is appropriate to adopt the tune that particular way. In any case, it was an exciting conclusion for the evening.

Atherton has an impressive resume, but I didn't find his conducting tonight particularly inspiring. The Hong Kong Philharmonic is adequate, but there is still much to be desired, especially in the area of precision. It may be interesting to put out a “Pure Sibelius” program, but the notes should explain a bit how the different pieces hang together as, say, a representation of the different stages of Sibelius's work.

Yeung Ming Cantonese Opera – Dream of the Red Chamber. December 4, 2007.

Hong Kong Ko Shan Theatre, Seat Stalls L44 (HK$280).

Music Director – Tsang Kin Man; Jia Bo Yuk – Lau Wai Ming, Lin Dai Yuk – Wen Fei Yen, Mother Jia – Lin Bo Shen, Shue Bo Chai – Chan Ming Ying.

Story: Lin Dai Yuk, orphaned at a young age, is raised by the Jia family. She and Jia Bo Yuk grow up together and fall in love with one another. However, the Jia family wants Jai Bo Yuk to marry Shue instead, and they conspire to lie to Jia Bo Yuk with a "bait and switch". When Lin Dai Yuk finds out, she dies of a broken heart. During the wedding ceremony, Jia Bo Yuk finds out about the switch, and that Lin has died. He comes to Lin Dai Yuk's altar and dreams of her (thus the title of the play). When he awakes, he throws away the family heirloom and leaves home.

Despite having grown up in Hong Kong, I actually know very little about Cantonese Operas. I vaguely recall going to a “Grand Opera” as a small child, probably during the Chinese New Year, with my parents. These festival performances were long drawn out affairs and people went to see parts of the opera rather than sit through the entire work. Of course I know of the famous ones like “The Butterfly Lovers”.

Tonight's performance was quite an experience. A few thoughts come immediately to mind. It was long at over four hours, comprising a dozen or so scenes with short breaks in between (for scenery changes) and a 15-minute break two-thirds of the way. People felt free to talk during the show, sometimes rather loudly. The traditionally heavy makeup made it difficult to tell the different actors apart (especially the women). The lead man's role was played by a woman. A man played the role of the grandmother. I don't know much about Chinese music, so I found the accompaniment repeating after the singer a bit strange. The orchestra was quite small at 10 or so instruments, but produced a reasonably rich sound.

The singing was okay. I do not know what constitutes virtuoso singing in this genre, but the audience did applaud quite enthusiastically after certain renditions. However, it appeared the singers had to take lots of breaths. The two main characters actually appeared on stage at lot, so they had to be tired after four hours of singing, even with the help of a rather good audio system.

The book on which the play is based is very well known. I have to admit I haven't read it, so do not know how much of the original story was kept. What I saw, however, was a very simple plot; easy to follow, but leaves one wondering if there can be more. Given the plot of the opera, a lot can be edited out to make it quite a bit shorter. Editing out unnecessary passages after they have been written is a difficult task. And the writers here didn't do a good job of it. All this, however, may be applying a different set of rules and expectations to the genre. I do think the enjoyment of the opera can be greatly enhanced if the words (and an English translation) were available as subtitles. But that would greatly increase the expenses involved.

There wasn't much of a chorus in the opera. The one exception was during the dream sequence. Eight women (angels or fairies) were singing and dancing. The choreography was quite bad, unfortunately.

I guess about 30 million or so people speak Cantonese, and wonder how the genre got started and how well accepted it is in today's environment where Western culture seems to find its way deeper into the Chinese society. Indeed tonight's attendees were dominated by women of middle age or higher (and I am being charitable). Quite a few appeared to be enthusiastic fans of the genre and the actors. Some brought along flashing signs with the name of the principal actress (who was playing Jia Bo Yuk). Nonetheless, there was only one performance of this opera, and one can imagine the time and effort put in by the artists.

I rather enjoyed the show, and at times was moved by the plot. I can't say I have become a fan of the genre, though.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fou Ts'ong Piano Recital – December 2, 2007.

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, Seat Stalls V24 (HK$400).


Berceuse Heroique (1914) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

Sonata No. 33 in C minor, Hob XVI: 20 (ca. 1765) by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

--- Moderato

--- Andante con moto

--- Allegro

Three Mazurkas, Op. 59 by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849).

--- No. 1 Mazurka in A minor: Moderato

--- No. 2 Mazurka in A-flat: Allegretto

--- No. 3 Mazurka in F-sharp minor: Vivace

Barcarolle in F-sharp, Op. 60 (1846) by Chopin

Sonata in B-flat, D960 (1828) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

--- Molto moderato

--- Andante sostenuto

--- Scherzo: Allegro vivace con delicatessa – Trio

--- Allegro ma non troppo

Most students of music in Hong Kong in the 60s knew about Fou Ts'ong. He was one of the few Chinese artists known worldwide during that period. I don't remember much about him except he was well regarded for his interpretation of Chopin. He performed in Hong Kong quite a few times when I was a high school student, but I never got a chance to hear him, and do not have any of his records.

We read about his recital in Hong Kong on the plane from LA to Hong Kong. Since we were landing the day before the event, we were sure no tickets would be available. Surprisingly, when we called the next morning, we were told tickets were available in all price categories. We arranged to have an early dinner with Anne's brothers, and managed to make the concert.

I seldom go to piano recitals, the last one I remember was a performance by Mitsuko Uchida at Carnegie Hall, several years ago. I vaguely recall her playing a couple of pieces by Chopin also, and, thinking back, that performance makes for an interesting comparison with Fou Ts'ong's performance tonight.

When Fou walked on stage, the first impression, unfortunately, was that he is old. Well, he was born in 1934, so he has every excuse to appear and act old. One of the reasons I don't like recitals is the loneliness projected by the artist (I'm sure that's not how they feel). In tonight's case, there was more melancholy than usual. He actually needed to support himself on the piano before he sat down, slowly.

His demeanor changed, drastically, once he started playing. The sound of the piano seemed just right, and he appeared absorbed in it. Well, I was so absorbed in it that Anne had to give me a nudge because I was “soundly” falling asleep. (Thankfully, it was only a short snort.) Now I was fighting both the jet lag and a severe bout of coughing, which I managed to suppress rather successfully, at great personal discomfort.

I am quite sure all the pieces are virtuosic compositions. He seemed to get through them with the greatest of ease, getting the notes out in their own good time, at the right tempo, without any hint of having to struggle. This contrasts considerably with Uchida's playing, my recollection of which was the pieces were barely within her grasp.

On the other hand, however, both the Chopin pieces seemed to lack the passion one would expect of the composer's works. Fou's analytical approach to music is further exemplified by the program notes provided by him. They give a good but analytical description of the works, but are short on background and the story the composers were trying to tell. The reader (and listener, if he listens while following the description) gets a good appreciation of the structure of the piece, but is left wondering if the composers are trying to say anything. To again contrast with Uchida, there was great urgency and passion to her rendition.

It's only during the third movement of the Schubert sonata that I began to feel some emotion in the playing. Surely, Fou's program notes reflect this. Schubert died shortly after completing this sonata, and “One can sense and feel the spiritual resignation and acceptance and perhaps sublimation of all earthly struggles in this work.

So I have mixed feelings about this concert. I am glad I got to see Fou Ts'ong, probably not in his peak form, but still demonstrating how a master approaches a concert. And the concert hall was quite full, with quite a few young people in the audience: I am glad people still remember and respect him in these days where Chinese superstars like Lang Lang and Li Yunde sell out concert after concert, all over the world.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Metropolitan Opera – Mozart's Die Zauberflote, November 17, 2007.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle, Seat D2 ($125).

Conductor – Kirill Petrenko; Tamino – Joseph Kaiser, Papageno – Stephane Degout, Queen of the Night – Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, Pamina – Diana Damrau, Sarastro – Reinhard Hagen

Story: Three ladies kill the serpent that was chasing after prince Tamino. They tell Tamino they are followers of the Queen of the Night. Tamino eventually finds out the Queen of the Night is evil. He seeks after Pamina who is captured by the Queen. After passing the three trials, Tamino and Pamina are married.

Well, the story is much more complicated than that. For starters, there are Papageno and Papagena. The bird catcher Papageno has a lot of face time in the opera, although his is a secondary character. Papagena, on the other hand, speaks – with a squeaky voice - most of the time, and has only a couple of arias to her credit. And there is the good King Sarastro and his staff. However, one doesn't go to this opera for the story, but for the production and the songs.

This was an enjoyable concert. No so much for the story, which is a bit too complicated and a bit loose at the same time, but for the funny scenes and the enjoyable music. The most notable aria is the one sung by the Queen of the Night. It is only from reading the program notes that I realized the highest pitch was a C. I didn't know people could reach that high!

The many changes in scenes are a technical challenge, which the stage crew pulled off without a hitch. The Program Notes listed 10 scenes for Act 2, although it was more like a continuously changing scene. The use of people to animate the different animals (birds, lions – which I thought were bears) was also ingenious.

This is an opera one attends to have an enjoyable time but not to be moved by the story or gripped by the drama. It's worth the time, though. And one has to give the artists and production crew great credit as it is not a simple feat to pull off; which the Met did flawlessly.

This opera was of the last ones completed by Mozart, and he died soon after its premiere. I have seen quite a few (at least 4) of Mozart's operas, I have yet learn how to enjoy them as a complete work of art. I always find something wanting. In this case, there is not much of a story, even for a comedy.

A couple of additional remarks. The use of trios (as in three ladies, three spirits) and the many triangles is interesting, but best left to musicologists and Free Mason experts to decipher. Mozart's operas tend to be questionable in today's PC climate (treatment of women in particular). Somehow I have not heard people protesting loudly about this.

We moved across the street the day before the concert, and in the process misplaced the tickets. Since I bought them as a subscriber, all it took was a phone call to the box office and duplicates were waiting for us when we got into New York. Quite convenient.

See also the New York Times review of a later performance - here Damrau actually sang the role of the Queen. I was wondering why she would consent to do the role of Pamina, which while rich, is a bit sparse. Little did I know she would do both. She also retired her role as the Queen, so I won't get to hear her doing the crazy tune, that's too bad.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

New York Philharmonic – Xian Zhang, Conductor; Vadim Repin, Violin. November 10, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat CC14, $59).


Fanfare and Announcement from Three Pieces for Orchestra (1998, 2000) by Huang Ruo (b. 1976).

Symphonie espangnole for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 21 (1874) by Lalo (1823-92).

Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811-12) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

The piece by Huang (I'm sure that's his last name) was 12 minutes long, with a clear demarcation between the fanfare and the announcement. The fanfare was reasonably easy to follow and, perhaps, to enjoy. The announcement, however, got to be a bit too out there for me. The composer evidently is highly regarded; he is now a doctoral student at Julliard and teaches composition at SUNY-Purchase. Let's hope he doesn't unleash hundreds like him onto the music world – one of him is plenty. I quote from the Program Notes the composer's words, “Everything has an end, and the end is a new beginning. It is true that these two pieces for orchestra are completed, but in an incomplete way. What is before, after, and beyond, is left to the listeners.” I am as puzzled today as when I first read this. The orchestration is quite interesting, though. There is this thing that made a wind-like noise when twirled (it would be the “rain stick”).

I didn't know Lalo was French, although I know the piece very well. In my defense, he was descended from a Spanish family; his ancestors were in France as early as the 16th century, though. Most people who listen to this would call this a violin concerto, especially since it is considered a virtuoso violin piece. It's structure is not classically concerto-like as it has five moments of about equal length. The movements are: Allegro non troppo; Scherzando: Allegro molto; Intermezzo: Allegretto non troppo; Andandate; and Rondo: Allegro. Repin played the piece well, his Guarnerius violin soared above the orchestra. Curiously there is no clear cadenza in the piece that I could discern, although there were many challenging passages. My overall impression with this piece, however, is that it is not trying to go anywhere except to show off the violinist and provide many enjoyable tunes. These are not bad qualities for a piece to have; but not quite satisfying in this instance.

I got to really like Beethoven's 7th symphony from listening to the slow movement in the Dearly Beloved soundtrack. It is a great and moving movement. The rest of the symphony is equally enjoyable. The four movements are: Poco sostenuto - Vivace; Allegretto; Presto; and Allegro con brio.

Zhang is surprisingly energetic. Most of the time she had full movements of her arms, and jumped around quite a bit. I am sure she will calm down as she matures – otherwise it would be difficult to still be conducting at age 75 (a good 40 years away, maybe?) She is quite short, even in heels, standing on the podium, she is still shorter than Repin. I wonder if that would affect how far she can go in her career. I do want to root for her, though.

See also the New York Times Review on the program.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities ... the musical. November 6, 2007.

Asolo Repertory Theatre, Sarasota, Florida – Mezzanine, Seat D17 ($56).

Book, music & lyrics - Jill Santoriello; Director - Michael Donald Edwards; Sydney Carton – James Barbour, Charles Darnay – Derek Keeling, Miss Pross – Katherine McGrath; Lucie Manette – Jessica Rush, Madame Therese Defarge – Natalie Toro, John Barsad – Nick Wyman.

Story. Dr. Alexander Manette is released from the Bastille after a 17-year imprisonment and returns to London with his daughter Lucie and faithful banker Mr. Lorry. The young man Charles Darnay they meet is arrested as a spy on the word of Barsad; Darnay is however cleared by the brilliant defense put up by Sydney Carton. Both Darnay and Carton fall in love with Lucie but Darnay eventually marries Lucie while Carton remains a friend of the family. Darnay has to return to Paris to save a friend, but is arrested, again on the word of Barsad, who has changed his name after faking his own death. Darnay is condemned to the guillotine when Madame Defarge shows the crowd Dr. Manette's letter hidden in the Bastille, revealing Darnay as the nephew of the hated Marquis Evremonde. Carton gets Barsad to arrange a switch (of Carton) with Darnay in prison, and goes to the guillotine in his stead.

One reason we came to Sarasota this week was to see the world premiere of the musical “A Tale of Two Cities.” I have heard about this Dickens' book since I was a school kid but had never read it, and didn't know much about the story. I looked for the book when I was in Hong Kong and managed to buy an abridged version. The original is very long (it's Dickens, after all), so I am glad a digested version exists. The disappointment is the shortened version doesn't begin with the famous line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It does contain Carton's famous last thoughts, though.

The show is going to be at the Asolo Theater for about four weeks. It has sold most of the tickets (17,000 total), ranging in price from $16 to $56. We noticed some companies were making this an event where employees and guests get to enjoy cocktails before the show. The local marketing people are doing a great job.

Including the 20 minute break, the show lasted 2 hours 50 minutes, which is a bit long. Act I was quite long at about 85 minutes, good thing the theater has adequate restroom facilities.

The company of actors numbered about 40, which is a bit large for the 500 seat auditorium. Similarly the sound system and attendant audio effects were a bit overwhelming. Since the Sarasota run is a preparation for (hopefully) a Broadway engagement, I can see the production staff agonizing over these issues.

The sets were more appropriate for the Asolo Theater, but the 2-story frames still managed to fill the entire stage. The design is generally elegant, at times ingenious. They need to be spiffied up considerably for Broadway, in my opinion. Comparisons with Les Miserables are inevitable, and the Tale pales in this instance.

Madame Defarge and Sydney Carton both put out impressive performances. Other actors/singers were okay, though not spectacular. Musical actors use mikes, this is the first time I see these small mikes protruding from the hairlines, quite interesting.

The story, especially at the beginning, appeared a bit disjoint from scene to scene. This may be due to how it was written, or how it was performed – I'm not sure. The storyline is remarkably close to the book, much to the writer Jill Santoriello's credit.

There are a few quibbles with the show, though. The most memorable song of the show “Out of sight, out of mind” is quite moving and done very well by Madame Defarge. However, to have the antagonist sing your best song is unfortunate. The typical theater-goer would like to walk away humming an uplifting song rather than how the rich enjoy not knowing the poor suffer. The only instance I can think of where this comes to close to working is Delilah singing “Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix” in Mendelssohn's Samson and Delilah, and it is a love song (even though the singer is insincere). The character of Sydney Carton could be developed a bit more. He has a lot of singing parts, but the transformation of the character is not well defined in the show.

It is beyond my literary capacity to compare Dickens with Hugo. Both stories involve social injustice, revolutions, love triangles, redemption, sacrifice, the list goes on. There is even the Tale's Little Gaspard to Les Miserables's Gavroche. In most, if not all, instances, the Musical Les Miz develops the character more fully; and the Tale certainly has enough running time to do so. Similarly, Valjean quickly becomes a sympathetic character; I believe the audience feels for Carton only towards the end. Les Miz also took more advantage of its catchy tunes, reusing them quite often.

It is clear the production staff is tuning the show. I actually went to a practice session in New York where they were rehearsing the Christmas song “Round and Round”. It is a nice tune, but it was deleted from the show we saw. Anne remarked the grave robber's song “No Honest Way”, while funny, wasn't necessary either. She also said there were some instances of humor that were incongruent with the mood.

Now to be as successful as Les Miz may be asking for too much. Even in its present form, I think the Tale ranks up there as one of the great musicals I have seen (and I have seen quite a few).

Saturday, October 27, 2007

New York Philharmonic - Christoph von Dohnanyi, Conductor; Nikolaj Znaider, Violin. October 27, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Box Rear (Seat 22R16, $59).

Night's Black Bird (2004) by Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934).
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 47 (1902-1904; 1905) by Sibelius (1865-1957).
Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1804-08) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

We bought tickets for about 8 Philharmonic concerts for this season, as part of the "Create Your Own" series, at a great price of $59 per ticket. Tonight's was the first concert.

We had tickets in prior seasons to see Dohnanyi, somehow he always seemed to get sick and couldn't conduct. So we were wondering if we would miss him again. Good thing he was in good shape, and we enjoyed the concert thoroughly. Perhaps it was also because two of the pieces are well know, and the new one is quite short at about 12 minutes.

Not much can be said about the piece by Sir Harrison, a British composer who started his career as a clarinetist. The harps played an interesting introduction, and the beginning was classical enough that I could follow it. But the piece got stranger as it progressed. There was a proliferation of percussion instruments, including the kitchen sink (well, wood block and metal tube).

Dohnanyi rearranged the orchestra so the harps were on the right (looking from the audience), the strings were (from left to right) first violion, cello, viola, and second violin, with the double basses on the left in the back. Such is the perogative of the conductor, I guess. Despite the different arrangement, the sound of the orchestra was very good tonight.

I had not heard of Znaider (wonder if it is a variation of Snyder?) before. He is a Danish-born Polish-Israeli, and tall. The violin he plays is the "Kriesler" Guarnerius "del Gesu" 1741, with a surprising bright and well-projected sound (for a Guarnerius). Despite some problems with runs and intonation in the high registers, this was a well played piece. The concerto is in three movements: Allegro moderato, Adagio di molto, Allegro ma non tanto; and it must be of the most difficult pieces in a concert violinist's repertoire. It is well know Sibelius wrote it for the violinist that he wanted to be but wasn't, and I found the performance, particularly the third movement, very moving. Sibelius used very traditional orchestration (only percussion is the timpani, and no brass instruments) for the piece. The passage where the violin goes higher and higher with the orchestra going the other way is very pleasant.

We heard the concerto a couple of years ago with Joshua Bell as the violinist. I don't remember enough of that performance to compare the artists fairly, but I don't recall enjoying it as much as I did tonight.

Beethoven's fifth symphony is often called the "victory" because of the four notes that start the composition. The four movements are typical Beethoven: Allegro con brio, Andante con moto, Allegro, and Allegro. Beethoven wrote the fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies during the same timeframe, and they are quite different from one another. While Dohnanyi's interpretation isn't that different from all the rest (with the exception of shortened fermatas), this was an enjoyable performance of a favorite.

I am quite happy with how the season begins. It shows even well known pieces can be enjoyed if played properly.

See also the New York Times review of the concert. Naturally, the reviewer was ecstatic about the Birtwistle piece.

Friday, October 26, 2007

American Classical Orchestra – Thomas Crawford, Music Director; Michael Bilson, fortepiano. October 24, 2007.

Society for Ethical Culture, New York City, Auditorium (Seat D19, $50).

Symphony No. 38 in C Major, “Echo”, by Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809)
Allegro di molto
Andante molto
Menuet & Trio – Allegro
Allegro di molto
Marc Schachman, obe solo
Piano Conerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Rondo: Allegro asssai
Milcolm Bilson, fortepiano
Symphony No. 94 in G Major, “Surprise”, by Haydn
Adagio – Vivace assai
Menuet & Trio – Allegro molto
Finale: Allegro di molto

Our friends from our Cornell days asked us to go to this concert. Their daughter went to a workshop at Cornell and studied with Malcolm Bilson and thinks highly of him. Bilson started at Cornell in 1968. I was taking courses in the music department at that time (theory, orchestra, and conducting), but don't remember him. Anne says she does, though.

Haydn wrote his “Echo” symphony when he was 13 (information from lecture as relayed by our friend; Wikipedia lists the work as composed by 1769). I wasn't aware he was a child prodigy (I did know he was extremely prolific, having written over 100 symphonies.) He was born before Mozart and died after Mozart did. Mozart was writing operas when he was a teenager. The two must have been quite a duo! In any case, the title of the symphony became obvious soon when echoes were liberally placed in the music. One could hear the genius of the composer as well as the child in him – if indeed it was composed when Haydn was 13.

The orchestra is quite small, six first violins and (perhaps) eight seconds. However, we were so close to the stage that I could hear the individual instruments if I focussed hard enough. Stradivarius was making violins in the late 1600s already, and those instruments are still played today, so the violin can't have changed that much since Haydn and Mozart's days. I did notice some of the bows do look different from the modern violin bow. The strings played without vibrato which I found very interesting. Vibrato, in addition to giving out a richer tone, also can hide intonation problems for those whose ears may not be perfect. I am quite sure the technique was around when Haydn was around (I guess one could check by reading the violin instruction book written by Mozart's father Leopold). It is a tribute to the players that the sound was quite good. The woodwind and brass instruments do look very different, a period flute certainly looks much simpler than what a modern flute looks like today.

Afterwards the conductor described how the solo oboeist wanted to play the part like “a bat from hell.” The passage did sound quite interesting, and the sound of the period oboe was a bit different (less nasal.) It felt a bit rushed, though.

The fortepiano is light enough that three people could lift it easily. The keyboard is quite small at about five octaves (compared to the eight on a modern piano). Evidently piano music from that period is limited to a range of five octaves. The sound was extremely soft though. Even from where we sit, we had trouble hearing many of the passages, especially the “tutti” parts. The instrument doesn't have pedals, which is the way I think Mozart should be played anyway. The lower registers produced a “twang” (probably from the strings being too close to the sound board) which was a bit annoying. I am not sure, and wonder, if the keys are the same width as those we have today.

I was dozing off a bit during the last movement, and am quite sure I heard Bilson said “I'm sorry” which totally woke me up. I don't know what mistake he made (as I am not that familiar with this concerto) but am quite sure he began to hesitate after that. The audience nonetheless gave him a warm applause afterwards.

I know most of the “Surprise” symphony quite well, except the last movement. I told Anne it is probably because I usually have fallen asleep by the time it comes around. Compared to “Echo”, this symphony is not as aptly named. In my opinion, there was only one chord that was truly surprising, and the effect is lost after the first listen anyway.

I don't know much about period music, although a professor at Cornell was well known for playing the viola da gamba. The way Bilson played was no different than how I would expect him to play on a modern piano, although the sounds were different, and there was no pedal to accommodate sloppy keyboard techniques. Similarly, the non-use of vibrato may or may not be how people played strings then. (Although it is difficult to imagine not using the technique on a Stradivarius.) Other noticeable differences were the smaller violas (hard to tell they were not violins) and the spikeless cellos.

The name “Society for Ethical Culture” is not the most descriptive, and is easily confused with “Society for Ethnic Culture”. According to Anne, this is a gathering of people who do not believe in the existence of God but think the pursuit of ethics is a worthwhile endeavor. In my opinion, without a god the study of ethics can be an interesting academic subject, but who can decide among competing and conflicting principles? For example, who is to say striving for my own good is better or not as worthwhile as striving for the greater good?

All in all, this was an enjoyable evening in the city.

Metropolitan Opera – Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, October 20, 2007.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle, Seat B11 ($125).

Conductor – James Levine; Lord Enrico Ashton – Mariusz Kwiecien, Raimondo – John Relyea, Lucia – Annick Massis, Edgardo – Marcello Giordani, Arturo – Stephen Costello

Story: Lucia's brother Enrico wants her to marry Arturo in order to save his family's fortunes. Lucia instead falls in love with the family's enemy Edgardo. By intercepting and withholding letters between Lucia and Edgardo, Enrico manages to deceive Lucia and the family priest Raimondo that Edgardo has abandoned the relationship. Edgardo blasts his way into the wedding ceremony and curses Lucia for her betrayal. Lucia kills Arturo while Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel. As the duel is about to begin, Raimondo announces Lucia's death and Edgardo stabs himself so he can join Lucia in heaven.

Guess what, we are not leaving the area. During the summer we renewed our subscriptions to the Met and the New York Philharmonic. The NYC Opera season doesn't look all that interesting, we may just go to a couple of their productions.

Lucia is well known for the mad scene where a bloodied Lucia writhes on the ground. I honestly didn't know much about the story, but I do know a couple of the more famous arias, the love duet “Ah! Verranno a te sull'aure” and the sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento”. The latter tune is a well-known hymn; knowing its origin and context, I'm not sure it's all that appropriate to adapt the tune to a hymn.

The role of Lucia was sung by Annick Massis. All the writeups I have seen of the opera talk about how great Natalie Massey (whom I haven't heard either) was in the role. I asked the couple sitting next to us if they knew what was going on, and they didn't. They also told me this new production is very different from the last one. Since I hadn't seen the last one, I guess it's not that important. I remain a bit puzzled, though.

The opera was quite enjoyable, to the extent a tragedy can be enjoyed. The two arias didn't disappoint, although neither evoked the emotion one could expect. Unfortunately that sentiment permeates my impression of the opera: nice but not gripping. Whether that is due to the story, the acting, the music, or a combination of these factors, I am not sure. The audience should feel sorry for Lucia rather than Annick when she is writhing on the ground.

The sets were quite elegantly designed, and changing of the scenes within a set was done smoothly. In Act 3 the scenes moved from castle ruins to a ballroom to a cemetery, quite a design and technical challenge. The scene where the photographer was doing his best to arrange the wedding party was quite humorous for its incongruity with what was happening. The ghost of Janet Dalrymple, the girl on whom the Sir Walter Scott story is based, and represented by a woman dressed and made up in white, produced a good effect.

The orchestra played beautifully, the harp accompaniment introducing Lucia during the first act was particularly nice. Edgardo was a bit disappointing, being mostly a "shouter". The recitative with which he first entered wasn't done all that well, and I am sure he was off by half a note after an a cappella passage. For some reason, the two intermissions were very long, at 35 minutes each – it was a good thing we drove in as we probably would have missed the 12:07 train. The singers didn't have such long arias that they would need the rest. Some attributed it to the health of Levine, indeed there was some impatient clapping for the third Act to begin. Levine carries a tremendous work load; if his health is indeed an issue, perhaps it is time to play more of a counselor role and yield the baton to younger conductors?

Donizetti isn't quite as famous as Rossini, Verdi or Puccini. He was nonetheless a very prolific composer, having composed about 75 operas. The Program Notes list Lucia, Don Pasquale and The Elixir of Love as the most popular ones that have remained popular all these years. I am happy to say we have seen all three.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor; Deborah Voight, Soprano. June 23, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat GG106, $0.01)


Four Orchestral Songs: “Befreit” (“Set Free”), Op. 39, No. 4 (1898; orch. 1933); “Lied der Frauen” (“Song of the Women”), Op. 68, No. 6 (1918; orch. 1933); “Morgen!” (“Tomorrow!”), Op. 27, No. 4 (1894; orch. 1897) and “Fruhlingsfeier” (“Celebration of Spring”), Op. 56, No. 5 (1903-06; orch. 1933) by R. Strauss (1864-1949).

Symphony No. 7 (1904-05) by Mahler (1860-1911).

About the ticket price. We got two free tickets as a result of our subscriptions to the season. And they were for any available seat in the house. These seats have a good view of the stage and have good acoustics. However, the floor isn't sloped enough for us to have a good view of the orchestra. Mahler's piece calls for all kinds of percussion instruments (including the rute, a bundle of sticks), so a seat with a better view of the section would be interesting.

We saw Deborah Voight earlier this year at the Metropolitan Opera as Helen in Strauss's Opera Helen of Egypt. My comments about her performance there apply here also. She has a voice that projects very well, even against a full orchestra, but it is a bit on the harsh side. I am generally not a “song” person, although the four songs were enjoyable enough, and there were a few tender moments. The program annotator managed to write a rather long article on the pieces, though.

I usually enjoy the way Maazel conducts Mahler. Tonight was no exception. The seventh is an awfully long symphony, advertised in the Notes to be 82 minutes long; the actual performance was close to 90 minutes. Lately I have wondered about Maazel's stamina (he is over 75), he didn't seem to have any problems tonight though.

The Symphony's five movements are Slow – Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo; Night Music: Allegro moderato – Andante; Scherzo: Shadowlike, flowing, but not fast; Night Music: Andante amoroso; and Rondo-Finale: Tempo I (Allegro ordinario – Allegro moderato ma energico). Mahler's inscriptions for his movements are always quite interesting, a mixture of English and Italian in this instance. By my watch, the lengths are respectively 30 minutes, 15, 10, 15 and (without pause) 20.

The first movement was complex and seemed chaotic. There were some miscues, and sometimes the orchestra was barely under control. The second movement was a delight. The third was more serious. The solo violin was featured prominently in the fourth movement. The guitar and mandolin (unusual instruments in a symphony) also participated. They needed microphones in order to be heard over the rest of the orchestra. The viola and other instruments also got solo passages here. The last movement was driven along by the timpani, which got quite a bit of workout tonight.

The crowd gave an enthusiastic ovation. Maazel also pointed out the members who would be retiring this year. There were a couple of people who insisted on letting their displeasure known by louding booing – fortunately the booing was by and large drowned out by the applause.

This was the final series for the season. We haven't renewed our subscription for next year, partially due to not knowing whether we would move out of the area. So there was a bit of melancholy involved also.

See also the New York Times review. The reviewer describes the orchestra as being a car without an engine.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor; New York Choral Artits, Joseph Flummerfelt, Director. June 2, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Box Rear (Seat 20F2, $43).

Program: Brahms the Romantic – A Philharmonic Festival

Variations on a Theme by Haydn by Brahms (1833-1897).

A German Requiem, Op. 45 by Brahms.

We had tickets for June 9 and 16 (both programs conducted by Riccardo Muti, with Lang Lang playing Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto in one) but wouldn't be able to make them due to our planned trip to Asia. We got tonight's ticket in exchange for one event, and gave the Lang Lang concert tickets to a friend. While I would like to see Lang Lang and Muti (whom I still have yet to see), I am also glad we went to tonight's concert.

Brahms' first foray into symphonic work was with these Hadyn Variations. He composed a score for two pianos and another for an orchestra. Interestingly, most musicologists today believe the theme wasn't written by Hadyn. The piece contains the theme (Chorale St. Antoni - Andante), eight variations (Poco piu animato, Piu vivace, Con moto, Andante con moto, Vivace, Vivace, Grazioso, Preseto no troppo), and a Finale (Andante). This composition is quite unusual as variations go - the theme only unmistakenly appears in the first and last movements. Nonetheless, the 20- or so minute piece was quite delightful.

As with many of Brahms' works, “A German Requiem” underwent many revisions before Brahms finally finished it. Most Requiems are based on the Latin requiem mass text, starting with Introit et Kyrie and ending with In paradisum. Brahms chose for his work different passages from the Bible, in German. He also said his work could be called “A Human Requiem”. There is no mention of Christ at all in the text, but there is a strong sense of faith and redemption nonetheless. This piece was played by the New York Philharmonic on September 20, 2001 as a memorial for the 9/11 attacks. The headings of the pieces are (i) Blessed are they that mourn; (ii) For all flesh is grass; (iii) Lord, teach me; (iv) How amiable are Thy tabernacles; (v) Ye now therefore have sorrow; (vi) For here have we no continuing city; and (vii) Bleassed are the dead.

The piece was very enjoyable, and moving. The soloists were the soprano Celena Shafer and the baritone Matthias Goerne. While up to the task, they had relatively minor roles (each sang for fewer than five minutes). The New York Chorale consisted of about 80 singers, they were generally quite good also. They couldn't get all the s's and t's in sync, though. And there were many of those sounds in the German lyrics.

We were in the city early, so we went to the pre-concert talk by Charles Borstein, scholar in residence at the Philharmonic. He talked about two things in the Requiem: the seventh interval which recurs in every movement, and the Dresden Amen. I only caught glimpses of them during the concert. He also mentioned the piece was not motif-based but was rather harmony-based. While I understand what he said in the abstract, I am not sure I agree with it, and there were certainly many motif-sounding fragments to me. When asked whom the Requiem was written for, he mentioned it might have been for Robert Schumann, or Brahms's own mother. Then he made the insightful remark that at the end the composer wrote it for himself.

The requiem was 70 minutes long (advertised as 60 in the notes). Maazel conducted it without music, although I was a bit worried about his stamina – he seemed a bit tired at the end. It was a great performance, though.

The New York Times preview of the program (which also reviewed an earlier program) is brutal, severely criticizing the perceived lack of originality of the “Brahms the Romantic” series and Maazel's handling of Brahms in general. Let me repeat: I thought the evening's performance was quite enjoyable.

Friday, June 01, 2007

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor; Julian Rachlin, Violin. May 26, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Center (Seat AA110, $60).


Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36 (1887-88) by Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).

Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61 (1880) by Saint-Saens (1835-1921).

Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123, Sz. 116 (1943) by Bartok (1881-1945).

The overture by Rimsky-Korsakov is quite interesting. It contains many solo lines (flute, cello, violin, trombone, etc), and some passages are very typical R-K. The short piece (16 minutes) has many mood changes. Some of the passages very quite difficult and the orchestra was a bit sloppy at times.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov belonged to this nationalistic group of five Russian composers (“the Mighty Five”) that also included Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Modest Musorgsky, and Mily Balakirev (organizer and R-K's mentor.)

I couldn't remember what the violin concerto sounded like. It turned out to be one that was quite familiar to me. The three movements are: Allegro non troppo; Andantino quasi allegretto; and Molto moderato e maestoso – Allegro non troppo. The concerto was dedicated to Pablo de Sarasate. The performance tonight certainly didn't start auspiciously, with the beginning sounding quite lethargic and the violinist having some intonation problems with notes played on the bridge end of the finger board.

Luckily, the performance eventually settled into a rather pleasant rendition of a virtuoso piece of music, noted for the extensive use of harmonics. The clarinet doubling accompaniment made the passage especially dreamlike and enjoyable.

Lithuania-born (1974) Rachlin plays the 1741 “ex Carrodus” Guarnerius del Gesu violin. Guarnerii are usually noted for their smooth tone, and they usually don't project very well against an orchestra. This one seemed to do well, though.

Bartok came to the United States in 1940, and by 1943 had developed the first symptoms of leukemia, his weight falling to a mere 87 pounds. He was also financially strapped, and his similarly displaced Hungarian friends Fritz Reiner and Joseph Szigeti asked the Boston Symphony's Serge Koussevitzky to commission Bartok to write a new symphonic work. After being convinced that this wasn't an act of charity, Bartok wrote the piece at a rural mountain getaway at Saranac Lake, New York. Bartok's commented on the piece at its premiere: “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sterness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third to the life-assertion of the last one.” The five movements are (i) Introduction: Andante non troppo – Allegro vivace; (ii) Game of Couples: Allegretto scherzando; (iii) Elegy: Andante non troppo; (iv) Interrupted Intermezzo: Allegretto; and (v) Finale: Pesante – Presto. There was no pause between (iv) and (v) in tonight's performance. (Most of this paragraph taken from the Notes to the concert.)

I usually enjoy Bartok's music. However, I didn't find tonight's piece particularly captivating. Perhaps it was its length: a bit long at 40 minutes. Or perhaps it was its complexity. In any case, the program notes also talk about a parody of a theme from Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, which was in turn copied from Franz Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow. Describing it as “rude vulgar” was probably a bit much, but it certainly sounded out of place.

See also the New York Times review of the concert. The reviewer thought the entire concert was on the vulgar side.

Friday, May 04, 2007

New York Philharmonic - Lorin Maazel, Conductor; Anne-Sophie Mutter, Violin. April 28, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. First Tier Center (Seat DD13, $59).

Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b (1806) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).
Violin Concerto (1935) by Alban Berg (1885-1935).
Andante - Allegretto
Allegro - Adagio
Chant du rossignol: Poeme symphonique (Song of the Nightingale: Symphonic Poem; 1913-14; 1917) by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 (1909-12; 1913) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).
General Dance

A few observations. This is close to the end of the season, and it is the first time we see Maazel conducting. What's going on? He has to take on guest conducting assignments at other orchestras to supplement his generous Philharmonic salary?

The Berg concerto was a bit beyond me. I read that he composed in the 12-tone scale a la Schoenberg. Technically it appears quite challenging, musically I alas don't appreciate.

Mutter's dress was a bit flashy - I'd call the color orange, others may call it peach. I am sure she performed on one of the two Strads she owns, but the tone was uncharacteristically muted.

Leonore eventually evolved into Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera. It sounded very familiar, but I couldn't find it on my iPod. I get that confused with the Egmont overtures, oftentimes.

This concert is reviewed by the New York Times, for those who can't wait ...

New York City Opera – Verdi's La traviata – April 21, 2007.

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center First Ring, Seat B13 ($112.50).

Conductor – George Manahan; Violetta Valery – Anne Sophie Duprels, Flora Bervoix – Heather Johnson, Alfredo Germont – Bruce Sledge, Giorgio Germont – Michael Corvino, Dr. Grenvil – Eric Jordan.

Story: Violetta, a courtesan, falls in love with Alfredo and the two live together. To support themselves, Violetta has to sell off her possessions without telling Alfredo. Alfredo's father Giorgio visits Violetta and asks her to leave his son so he can reclaim his family's reputation. Violetta obliges but Alfredo mistakes her departure as abandonment. Violetta eventually develops consumption. Finally Alfredo realizes his mistakes and asks Violetta for her forgiveness. Violetta forgives and dies in his arms.

Well, that's how the ending goes most of the time – and I have seen this opera many times. In this production Violetta simply falls to the ground.

La traviata and Carmen are two operas I still haven't grown tired of, and heartily recommend to any first time opera listeners. The stories, while predictable, are captivating and simple to follow. The arias are generally well-known and melodic. While they are tragedies, they are not overtly “moral”. You can empathize with the various characters, but you don't feel the need to judge the characters, or the traits they represent. The villain Giorgio redeems himself at the end by trying to reconcile Violetta and Alfredo; and he was not evil as Scarpia in Tosca or Delilah in Samson and Delilah.

The sets for this opera were reasonably elaborate by NYC Opera standards. A couple of years ago we saw the production by the Met, which was quite opulent.

Well, the NYC Opera isn't the Met, and Anne Sophie Duprels isn't Renee Fleming either. Fleming sang the part of Violetta at the Met performance we saw. I am sure Duprels is an excellent soprano, and she reached the high notes comfortably. However, she could only reach those notes by force, rather that the soft pianissimo a great soprano seems to reach effortlessly. The opera rises and falls on the performance of the heroine, so the performance was – adequate.

Alfredo and Giorgio also put in adequate performances. However, at times Giorgio's voice was particularly weak.

The interlude scenes of gypsy dancers and bull fighters are sometimes incongruent with the flow of the story. I found both to be quite enjoyable, even they were not trying to do as much as, say, the Met. The lead Gypsy dancer's performance was especially good.

The Chinese title for this opera is “Lady of Camellia”. Alfredo offers the flower to Violetta when he first meets her, and brings a flower to her at the end. It didn't happen in this one.

Despite my mixed review, I still would recommend this opera to others. And I won't mind seeing it again myself either.

The New York Times reviewer was struggling a bit with what to say about a so-so performance of a great opera also. There is an interesting description of the last New York City production.

We met up with Anna and Kenneth after the opera (it was a matinee) for dinner at Old Homstead Restaurant, famous for its $41 Kobe Beef Hamburger. We were pleasantly surprised that most of their beef dishes are around $40 (exception is the Kobe Steak at $195). The leftover from Anne's prime rib fed the two of us for another two days.

A very pleasant spring day to spend in New York.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Metropolitan Opera - Giordano's Andrea Chenier. April 7, 2007.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Grand Tier, Seat G20 ($150).

Conductor - Marco Armiliato; Carlo Gerard - Mark Delaven, Maddalena de Coigny - Violeta Urmana, Bersi - Maria Zifchak, Andrea Chenier - Ben Heppner, The Incredible (a spy) - David Cangelosi, Roucher - Charles Taylor, Madelon - Irina Mishura.

Story. Andre Chenier is a poet during the time of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. He is introduced in the opera composing a poem mocking the aristocrats invited to a ball by Maddalena's family. Gerard, a servant in the household, quits his job, joins the French Revolution and rises up in its ranks. He falsely accuses Chenier of betraying the cause. Maddalena, who is in love with Andre Chenier, pleads for Chenier's life and promises to marry Gerard if Chenier is saved. Her plea to Gerard describing how her mother was killed and how she and her servant Bersi had to hide from their persecutors wins Gerard over. Despite Gerard's admitting that the charges are trumped up, the tribunal still sentences Chenier to die. Before the execution, Maddalena bribes the prison guard to let her be disguised as another condemned woman prisoner. Maddalena and Andre spend their last moments together before going to the guillotine.

The aria “La mamma morta”, sung by Maria Callas, was made famous in the fireplace scene of the movie Philadelphia with Tom Hanks describing the aria, especially the cello part. It was largely because of my fascination with this song that we went to see the opera. The other interesting thing is there is a causal clothing brand in Hong Kong named Giordano, legend has it that the company founder named the company after the opera composer.

I enjoyed the opera. The sets were elaborately and nicely constructed. The opera also called for a large number of chorus members in scenes such as the ballroom dance and the mob. The music was generally pleasant. What I have read about the opera seems to indicate there are a couple of familiar arias. I only knew the one from Philadelphia, though.

Violetta Urmana is no Maria Callas. She had a different take on the aria than the Callas soundtrack I have, nonetheless it was beautifully performed. Ben Heppner, whom we also saw earlier this season in Idomeneo, was a bit weak. The acting in general was only so-so. The supposedly scene-stealer aria of Madelon, a blind old woman offering her only surviving son to the revolution, was not all that captivating.

Nonetheless, it was well worth the time. The appreciative audience seemed to agree. I also got to review a bit of my European history. Andre Chenier was a historical character. The love story with Maddalena, alas, was made up. The macabre in us made us wonder if they would show a guillotine in the last Act. What they did was cast a shadow of one in the background.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

New York Philharmonic - Sir Colin Davis, Conductor; Radu Lupu, Piano, Thomas Stacy, English Horn. March 31, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center - Third Tier Box 10R6 ($30).

Piano Concerto in B-flat major, K. 595 (1790-91) by Mozart (1756-91).
Lemminkainen Suite, Op. 22 (various) by Sibelius (1865-1957).

We attended tonight's concert at the suggestion of our friend. He claims Radu Lupu plays great Mozart. The other part of the program was going to be Sibelius's Lemminkainen Suite. I had heard a movement from the Suite about a year ago and was not particularly impressed. So there was both anticipation and dread towards the concert.

The Mozart piano concerto was written less than a year before Mozart died, although scholars doubt very much it indicates any knowledge of the composer's sad demise. The concerto contains the traditional movements (Allegro, Larghetto, and Allegro). Indeed Lupu played very well. Compared to Uchida, whom I heard a week ago, his phrasing was crisp, and the use of pedal was minimal (I detected it only during the cadenza). Now, I am no pianist, nor am I a Mozart scholar, so I honestly can't tell one great performance from another. Nonetheless, both a doctoral student at Julliard and her mother tell me the phrasing and balance are just exquisite. I will have to take their word for it. In contrast, the orchestra was a bit sloppy. No doubt more rehearsal time with the guest conductor Colin Davis would have helped.

The Lemminkainen Suite consists of four movements composed during various times. They are: (i) Lemminkainen and the Maidens of the Island (1895, rev. 1897/1939), (ii) The Swan of Tuonela (1895, rev. 1897/1900), (iii) Lemminkainen in Tuonela (1893, rev. 1879/1939) and (iv) Lemminaiken's Return (1895, rev. 1897/1900).

I enjoyed the Suite much more this time than the last, which I characterized as “forgettable.” Perhaps it was due to the seat. Although we sat in a third tier box and had only a partial view of the stage, the acoustics was quite good. Another factor could be when the entire Suite is played, there was more context to understand the music with. Even the Swan movement came across quite well. Although we had to lean forward to see Thomas Stacy, the sound of the English Horn came through very well. Overall, the music is quite uplifting, especially by Sibelius's standard.

A word on the conductor. He is about 80 years old (born 1927), and still stands straight and conduct vigorously. Impressive.

The Metropolitan Opera - Strauss's Die Agyptische Helena. March 31, 2007.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Dress Circle, Seat F24 ($125).

Conductor - Fabio Luisi; Aithra - Diana Damrau, Helena - Deborah Voight, Melenas - Torsten Kerl, Da-ud, Garrett Soreson, Altair - Wolfgang Brendel.

Story. The traditional Helen of Troy story has Helen carried away by Paris and marrying him. This story presents the alternate legend that it is actually a facsimile of Helen that is carried off, while the real Helen remains in Egypt. She has to convince Menalas that she has always been faithful. When given the choice of a lotus potion that will eliminate all the bad memories or a potion that will bring back remembrance of those bad times, Helen chooses the later. Still, they manage to overcome the pain and are reunited with their child Hermione.

I chose this Met performance because Deborah Voight is in it. I had read many reports on Voight who is proclaimed as a great Wagner soprano. My interest was really piqued when she was dismissed from a London performance because she was too overweight, and her subsequent decision to have her stomach's size surgically reduced.

That this opera was composed by Richard Strass was a bit of a deterrent. We saw his Capriccio (NYC Opera) in 2005 and I came away puzzled. Alas, this sentiment is repeated with this opera.

The premise of the story is interesting enough, although with the way the plot unfolds in the opera, there is not much suspense or drama. The set is minimal and not very interesting, especially by the Met's usual elaborate standards. The costume was modern – dresses and suits, no togas.

Both Damrau and Voight have great voices. Voight supposedly had to hit a C#, I missed it, probably because she did it so effortlessly. I was a bit surprised that Voight's timbre was a bit on the harsh side, maybe that's why it carries so well? Damrau's voice is very pleasant. In comparison, the tenor Kerl's voice was weak.

A few interesting notes. The elves all wear sunglasses and dresses, but they all have beards. There is also a group of men in white suits carrying black briefcases that have light bulbs in them. They remind me of the “agents” in the Matrix movies. Also, they made Aithra lie on the stage at the end of Act I and before Act II for quite a while. The sets of Acts I and II are mirror images of one another.

Opera News magazine had a couple of articles on Diana Damrau and the Met production of this opera. Perhaps these writers have a better appreciation of the opera.

The Met put this opera on soon after it was written in 1928. It wasn't repeated until this series. One wonders when the opera will be produced again!

New York Philharmonic - Sir Colin Davis, Conductor; Mitsuko Uchida, Piano. March 24, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center, Seat DD19 ($59).

Symphony No. 85 in B-flat minor, "La Reine," Hob. I:85 (1785?) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Piano Concerto in F major, K. 459 (1784) by Mozart (1756-91).
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, "Tragic," D.417 (1816) by Schubert (1797-1828).

Since we had quite a bit of time between the Opera and this evening's concert, we went to the pre-concert talk. It was given by the Philharmonic's scholar-in-residence Charles Bornstein. He had quite a bit of praise for how effect Colin Davis was as a conductor. He also remarked that all three composers in tonight's concert died in Vienna. Someone pointed out Schubert actually died at age 31, even younger than Mozart. To think Schubert could be writing timeless music while a teenage is sobering. Although Bornstein did point out the music sometimes would drift on for a bit too long.

We saw Colin Davis last year, the soloist was also Uchida, whom we have heard several times already. She is generally known as a great Mozart musician, although I find her playing a bit sloppy (too much pedaling?). I am very familiar with the concerto, having played it in the orchestra while I was in high school, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The movements are Allegro, Allegretto, and Allegro assai.

The Haydn symphony is in four movements: Adagio – vivace; Romance (Allegretto); Menuet (Allegretto – Trio); and Finale (Presto). Schubert's symphony is also in four movements: Adagio molto – Allegro vivace; Andante; Menuetto (Allegro vivace – Trio); and Allegro.

By the time I write this (April 6, 2007), I have forgotten most of the concert already. Having to write four reviews in a row doesn't help. I should learn to jot down my thoughts sooner, for what it's worth.

See the New York Times review.

New York City Opera - Rossini's La donna del lago. March 24, 2007.

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center - First Ring Right, Seat D6 ($112.50).

Conductor - George Manahan; Elena - Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Malcolm - Laura Vlasak Nolen, Uberto - Barry Banks, Rodrigo - Robert McPherson, Duglas - Daniel Mobbs.

Story. Elena, of Loch Katrine, is in love with the warrior Malcolm, but her father Duglas would rather she marry Rodrigo, the leader of the insurgent Highland army. Elena encounters Uberto and provides him with shelther; Uberto mistakes this kindness for love. When Uberto finds out Elena's true feelings, he gives Elena a ring that he claims will guarantee the King's aid and protection if she needed it. Rodrigo overhears this and challenges Uberto to a duel; Rodrigo is killed and the conflict is escalated. Duglas is captured and Elena goes to ask King James to pardon him. She discovers Uberto is actually King James of Scotland; he pardons both Duglas and Malcolm. The story ends with the marriage of Elena and Malcom being blessed.

This was a so-so opera. The staging was simplistic, the story was straight-forward, and the singing was only okay.

Three layers of broken city walls represent the ruins of the Highlands. If you don't use your imagination that there is a boat on stage, you won't know there is a lake involved, despite the title. Some free staging advice: a blue sheet or some sort of lighting will have given the effect of a shimmering lake.

The first act is basically used to introduce the main characters: Elena and her three suitors. There is no drama, no comedy, and barely a story in the act. The only action is Elena and Uberto climbing onto this contraption called a boat and appearing at Elena's home. The second act is interesting only when compared to the first one.

The singing was generally okay, the orchestra played well. But you expect that of Rossini's music anyway. The role of Malcolm was played by a woman, which is probably a necessity given the voice range expected. Unfortunately for me, I got terribly confused at times.

See also the Financial Times review.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

New York Philharmonic – Esa-Pekka Salonen, Conductor; Yefim Bronfman, Piano. February 3, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Center, Seat CC22 ($60).


Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17/1919) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Piano Concerto (2006-07 ; World Premiere) by Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958).
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874, arr. By Ravel 1922) by Musorgsky (1839-81).

Salonen has been the music director of LA Philharmonic for a long time, and I saw him quite a bit when I lived in the LA area in 2001/2002. I actually had a subscription to the 2002/2003 season, but had to give those tickets away because I came back to the East Coast. He burst onto the music scene many years ago and is considered on of the top (still) young conductors.

The first piece by Ravel was supposed to be a tribute to Ravel’s friends who died during World War I, with each of the movements (Prelude, Forlane, Menuet and Rigaudon) all dedicated to different people. In general, however, the music was lively and one would never think of it as an elegy. Perhaps it was how Ravel remembered his friends? In any case, there was no percussion at all, which is unusual for a contemporary symphonic piece. Salonen tends to anticipate the orchestra when he conducts. I always wonder how they maintain precision. For tonight at least I concluded they could not.

This series was the premiere performance of Salonen’s piano concerto, which is dedicated to the soloist Yefim Bronfman. What does one say about the concerto? The program notes contain a very detailed “roadmap” by Salonen on how he constructed the three different movements (simply called I, II and III) of the concerto. One could follow the roadmap to a tee and know exactly where the music is. There are enough interesting constructions that would keep the listener focused, but at the end you are not quite sure what you have heard. Somewhat like looking at a well-executed piece of modern artwork but not understanding whether the artist was trying to get across her emotion or was illustrating a new technique. One can even call this a sonata between the piano and the orchestra, if such a construct exists; even though the piano part contains many virtuoso passages, it often alternates the supporting role with the orchestra. You walk away agreeing Salonen is a great technician, but not sure whether he is an artist.

One of Salonen’s teachers at the Sibelius Academy was Einojuhani Rautavaara, whose work we heard when we were in Hong Kong in December, 2006. It was a concerto for “birds and orchestra” and taped singing of birds was used. Surely, movement II of tonight’s concerto had a working title of “synthetic folk music with artificial birds I”.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Musorgsky piece. The performance was done with a fresh perspective from the get-go. The slight accent of each of the first notes conjures up a long corridor. The texture of the piece was so rich that you wonder how the piano, wonderful and complete an instrument as it is, can bring out the images the orchestra does. The performance was so enjoyable that one can easily overlook the errant entry here or there.

Musorgsky wrote this music in memory of his artist friend Victor Hartmann (1834-73). The composition was inspired by various drawings, watercolors, sketches and architectural plans: ballet of the unhatched chicks, Tuileries; Limoges: the marketplace; catacombas, the Great Gate of Kiev). But most of Hartmann’s works have been lost or destroyed. Musorgsky evidently wasn’t very good technically, so his piano score was sanitized by Rimsky-Korsakov; and the original was already lost when Ravel worked on rearranging that for the orchestra.

See also the New York Times review of an earlier performance.

Monday, February 05, 2007

New York Philharmonic – Riccardo Muti, Conductor; Vadim Repin, Violin. January 20, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Center, Seat AA109 ($60).

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1878) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, “Le Poeme divin” (“The Divine Poem”), Op. 43 (1902-04) by Scriabin (1872-1915).

We saw Vadim Repin several years ago, and it was one of the more memorable experiences. After one of the strings on his violin snapped during the program, he calmly exchanged his violin with a member of the orchestra and continued playing. At a break in the solo part, he reached into his pocket and took out a set of strings so a fresh one could be put on (and tuned, by Di Cecco). When ready, violins were exchanged again, and Repin continued as if nothing had happened. The audience was awed and some couldn’t help but clap. I had a similar experience as a member of an orchestra during a performance. I sat out the rest of the piece. All that, and he played very well.

We didn’t expect similar fireworks tonight, and none was delivered. Actually we were thinking of not going to the concert. It was a cold and blustery night, which ended up being a long cold snap that hasn’t broken yet as I write this, in an otherwise warmish winter. Also, Anne was to get on a plane to Hong Kong the next day.

Repin plays the 1736 Guarneri del Gesu “von Szerdahely” violin, and the violin’s tone is more brilliant than I would expect. And the singing tone it produces is simply splendid. Nonetheless, the instrument did get swamped by the reduced orchestra during some of the louder orchestra passages. The cadenza of the first movement (Allegro moderato – Moderato assai) was technically challenging, which Repin tackled with ease. However, the harmonics sounded as if the violin was a bit out of tune. He didn’t have to retune though, so maybe it was my ears. The audience applauded after the first movement, which is understandable. After a short interlude called the second movement (Canzonetta, Andante), the piece launched into a lively Finale (Allegro vivacissimo). The piece was played a bit freer than usual. Overall the performance was enjoyable, but I was a bit disappointed as my expectations were very high, broken string notwithstanding.

The Scriabin symphony was of typical “Russian” length at 50 minutes, and consisted of three movements played without pause: Lento – Struggles (Allegro), Sensual Pleasures (Lento – Vivo), and Divine Play (Allegro – Vivo – Allegro). The work is supposedly to reflect Scriabin’s interest in mysticism and disclose his view of a specific philosophical meaning (quoting from the Program Notes). I didn’t get it.

The first movement began with the brass sections, and didn’t sound like a struggle to me despite my effort to listen for it. There was this 5-note motif that kept appearing. The second movement indeed had a mystic sound to it with the interplay between the violins and a “percolating” flute. The solo violin was a bit weak tonight, though. The last movement had French horns recalling the theme of the first movement.

This was the first time we saw Muti. I couldn’t tell how good he was since I was trying to understand the music itself.

The reviewer for New York Times thoroughly enjoyed the program.