Wednesday, January 10, 2007

New York Philharmonic – Zubin Mehta, conductor; Pinchas Zukerman, violin. January 6, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 2, Seat Q20 ($59).

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Our seats were towards the right side of the orchestra section, so the view of the soloist and the orchestra wasn’t great. However, the acoustics were great, one could hear the instrumentalists very well.

We heard Pinchas Zuckerman in Ithaca in the late 1970s. He was already well-known as a violinist then. In the intervening years, he has done conducting, played the viola extensively, and has taken up teaching; good for him. Zubin Mehta was the director of New York Philharmonic for more than 10 years and (I recall) left under somewhat unpleasant circumstances. I have heard him before (in Los Angeles, I think, and of course many CDs) and quite enjoy his music. He is one of those conductors that don’t seem to conduct rigidly to rhythm but more to cue the sections in before their appearances.

Most violin players I know love the Beethoven concerto. I remember in graduate school playing a David Oistrakh recording over and over again. It is interesting how Beethoven could string together a great sounding, musically challenging, and symphony-like concerto with a lot of scales and arpeggios. A good argument for doing your exercises.

Naturally Zuckerman played brilliantly. He tackled the most difficult pieces with ease, the dynamics were excellent, the give-and-take with the orchestra was good. The cadenzas were remarkable. Sometimes he would play along the orchestra violin parts, and it was interesting (and challenging) to pick out his violin from the other 10 or so that were playing the same tune. Every now and then, especially in the higher registers, there seemed to be problems with intonation; or have my ears deserted me? His violin sounded good, but didn’t seem to have the same smoothness one gets from a Stradivarius. (I researched a bit but couldn’t find out what violin Zuckerman plays.)

All in all a very enjoyable performance, even measured against the Oistrakh standard. The sold-out concert audience was also quite appreciative.

I am actually not as familiar with The Rite of Spring – particularly the second part – as I thought. This piece, rightly or wrongly, is defined by the introductory bassoon passage, which was played well, although not quite in the way most people play it. The composition caused a riot when it was premiered in Paris; by today’s standards it sounded quite tame. It talks about a young maiden’s sacrifice. One of those days I should go see the ballet.

There seemed to be some hesitation on the orchestra’s part towards the end where I expected entrances with convictions. Perhaps that’s due to my lack of understanding of the music, or was it the way Mehta conducted?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

New York Philharmonic – David Robertson, conductor; Patricia Bardon, Mezzo-Soprano. December 16, 2006.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Center ($59).

Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien: Fragments symphoniques (1911/13) by Debussy (1862-1918).
Adriana Songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra (2006 ; US Premiere) by Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952).
Night Ride and Sunrise, Op. 55 (1808) by Sibelius (1865-1957).
La Mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques (1903-05, rev. 1910) by Debussy.

If someone asks why I got tickets for this concert, I won’t be able to answer. Other than Debussy’s La Mer, I didn’t know any of the pieces in the program. And I am not particularly a fan of vocal music. This concert was in the series I subscribe to, and I didn’t bother to exchange the tickets for another concert.

Many concert-goers probably felt the same way I did, and on top of that this was the holiday shopping season, so it wasn’t surprising that the attendance was quite spotty.

I was surprised at the size of the orchestra for the first piece, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian: Symphonic Fragments. There were three harps on stage. According to the program notes, Debussy wrote the music for a theater piece by Gabriele d’Annunzio who called it a “mystery play.” The premiere in 1911 wasn’t much of a success, and two years later Debussy asked his collaborator Andre Caplet to create the orchestral suite heard tonight.

The four movements of the piece are titled: The Court of the Lilies; Ecstatic Dance and Act One Finale; The Passion; and The Good Shepherd. The play depicts how Sebastian was killed by arrows. It was generally a pleasant (if a martyr play can be pleasant) piece with interesting lines and orchestration that evoke variously serenity, tension, and suspense.

Adriana Songs is derived from Helsinki-born Saariaho’s opera Adriana Mater and consists of four movements: Autumn Garden; I Feel Two Hearts; Furious Passions; and Life Regained. The story could be compelling, it talks of how good can triumph over evil and hatred. The mood set by the music generally supports that. One can associate different passages variously with struggle, mourning, furor, passion, and rage. Unfortunately, the music is a bit beyond me, it seems to be a bunch of motifs that don’t seem to lead anywhere. The French lyrics sounded pleasant enough – even though I don’t understand it. (Libretto by Amin Maalouf.)

This was Dublin-born Bardon’s New York Philharmonic debut. Her voice, at times quite strong, sometimes carried only intermittently into the Second Tier seat I was in. You wish she had a more auspicious debut.

The basis for Sibelius Night Ride and Sunrise is not entirely clear, but the line “the feelings of someone riding through the forest at night and then, after many hours, sensing the awesome silence of the pre-dawn, and finally glimpsing the ecstatic as the sun rises” sounds plausible and sensible enough. The program notes also say this is very optimistic by Sibelius usual dark standards. I was surprised at how energetic the night ride felt, though.

The three symphonic sketches of Debussy’s La Mer were originally called: Beautiful Sea at the Sanguinaire Islands; Play of the Waves; and The Wind Makess the Sea Dance. By the time he was done with the composition, the movements’ names changed to: From Dawn till Noon on the Sea; Play of the Waves (same); and Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea. Debussy father was an ex-Navy man who had wanted to send his son into a sailing career. The father got into legal trouble and Claude was sent to live with a family friend who steered him to the Paris Consevatoire.

The piece turned out to be less familiar to me than I thought. I generally like Debussy, usually after hearing a piece many times over. I need to listen to this some more, especially since I had trouble staying awake during the performance.

Robertson conducts two series in the 2006/2007 New York Philharmonic Season. By chance I saw both of them (the other one with Gil Shaham the soloist).

Tonight’s concert was a bit beyond me. The program notes (which I quoted extensively) were quite interesting, though.

The New York Times gives the concert a glowing review. They are especially appreciative of the program put together by Robertson and how the La Mer piece was performed.