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.