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.