Saturday, December 13, 2008

The National Chorale & Orchestra – Martin Josman, Music Director. December 12, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Third Tier Right (Seat BB109, $52).

Messiah (1741) by George Frideric Handel
Jee Hyun Lim, Soprano
Jennifer Roderer, Alto
Matt Morgan, Tenor
Derrick Parker, Bass

Since I was quite disappointed at the last National Chorale concert I went to, and since I was quite jet-lagged from my Hong Kong trip, I wasn’t looking forward to tonight’s performance. In the end I enjoyed this concert. Anne & I took the train in and managed a simple meal at China Fun. Shirley and Chung Shu drove in; it took them 2 ½ hours because Lincoln Tunnel was quite congested.

Again I was surprised at the small orchestra (5 first violins, e.g.). Turns out it was quite adequate for the 40 singers in the chorale. Indeed often times only one of the two cellos was playing. The concert wasn’t sold out, but there were enough attendees to make it respectable.

The start was tentative, fortunately the group improved as the performance continued. The tenor certainly was impressive, unfortunately he was the best of the lot. The bass’s voice was one of the strangest I have heard. It didn’t project, and Chung Shu described it as a bowling ball sloshing around in a square box requiring echo cancellation. The alto was also quite good. The soprano’s voice projected well but I had trouble with the words.

The choir was certainly together in getting their s’s and t’s out at the same time. I later noticed the conductor was very careful with cueing them in. The sopranos strained to reach the high notes. Towards the end the singing got somewhat sloppy. It is a rather long piece, and I am sure they were all a bit tired. (Total time was 2 hours 45 minutes, with a 30 or so minute intermission.) However, the conductor seemed to pay most of his attention to the choir, and the orchestra’s performance suffered, possibly as a result.

I was surprised at the instrumentation of the piece: no flutes, for instance. And one of the trumpet players was using (I think) a piccolo trumpet with 4 “plungers” instead of the usual three. The timpanist could dampen the drums after the notes a bit more diligently, there was a bit too much echo.

I felt a bit sorry for the conductor as he seemed not able to stand straight. His movements also were minimal, but basically got the job done (other than my note about not paying enough attention to the orchestra.) I wish he was a bit more animated, though, since the music was quite exciting.

Our seats, while furthest away from the stage, had good acoustics, and we could hear very well. Overall, tonight was a rather enjoyable evening, the concert’s length and my tiredness notwithstanding.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

New York Philharmonic - Lorin Maazel, conductor; Julia Fischer, violin. November 29, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Third Tier Center (Seat EE5, $48)

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046 (ca. 1717-23) by J.S. Bach (1685-1750).
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, Turkish (1775) by Mozart (1756-91).
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (1841/1851) by Schumann (1810-56).

We bought these tickets a couple of weeks ago (at least we thought we did) so we can spend the evening with Ellie and Kuau. Earlier in the day I couldn't find the tickets, and then discovered I was issued the tickets for Dec 9 (Elektra). Not only did I have no intention of seeing Strauss, I will be out of town on that day anyway. After some frantic wringing of the hands and calling the Box Office, I ended up purchasing new tickets for tonight's concert, and exchange the 4 Elektra tickets for 2 sets of 2 tickets for later concerts. (And ended up spending an additional $280 or so on NY Philharmonic.) All is well that ends well, though.

We drove in to NYC. We had no trouble doing that yesterday for the opera, and Friday after Thanksgiving is usually one of those aweful "gridlock" days. And there was also minimal congestion tonight. Perhaps the economy is really quite bad? We had a simple dinner at China Fun, and Ellie couldn't pass up buying a few cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery.

I am actually not familiar with Brandenburg No. 1. These six concertos were written by Bach as "audition" pieces for a position with the Margrave of (where else) Brandenburg; and Bach ended up not going. The movements are [Allegro]; Adagio; Allegro; Menuet: Trio I - Polacca: Trio II. The solo parts were played by Glenn Dictoerow (violin); Liang Wang, Sherry Sylar, Robert Botti (oboe); Judith LeClair (bassoon); Philip Myers, R. Allen Spanjer (horn); and Lionel Party (harpsichord). There were no flutes (solo or orchestra) in this piece. (Mozart didn't write any parts for flute either in Violin Concerto No. 5.) The performance didn't quite have the tight architecture feel one expects of Bach, the solo parts seemed more like on their own than being part of an integrated piece, and I was particularly disappointed at the solo violin (Dicterow has perfect pitch, per Program Notes). Ellie pointed out the violin was tuned a minor third higher to mimic a period instrument (the piccolo violin). This may or may not explain why it sounded the way it did. Another surprise is that Maazel conducted with the musical score.

The violin concerto is a familiar one, and technically not very challenging. Mozart wrote it when he was nineteen. The movements are Allegro aperto; Adagio; and Rondeau (Tempo di Menuetto). Fischer, at 25, is the youngest professor of violin in Germany. The program doesn't specify the violin she plays, but it didn't sound brilliant enough to be a Stradivarious or soft enough to be an Amati or Guarnerius. The is confirmed by her Wikipedia entry, which says she is also a pianist who has won several prizes in that instrument. Nonetheless, I thought the second and third movements were quite flat.

They rang the bell at about 10 minutes into the intermission so I rushed back to my seat. Turns out the total intermission was about 30 minutes long. Go figure.

Schmann's fourth symphony was written and edited by the composer in the span of 10 years (about his entire symphony-writing period), and he stopped composing soon after completing it. The movements are played without pause: Fairly slow - Lively; Romance: Fairly slow; Scherzo: Lively; and Slow- Lively - Faster - Presto. (Why would the description be in English?) A couple of motifs/themes seem to recur throughout, making the identification of where things are particularly difficult. Maazel conducted both the Mozart and this without music, and he did this with great enthusiasm, and the orchestra responded the same way. The piece was very enjoyable.

Ellie asked me if I was ever impressed with performances I go to. I told her at the end of the program the Schumann would be an example of something done very well.

The New York Times reviewer saw the program on a different date. Fischer was wearing a red dress on that day (black on the day we saw her play). The reviewer was much kinder than I am. Evidently Maazel hasn't done much Baroque music during his tenure with the Philharmonic.

Metropolitan Opera - Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, November 28, 2008.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Dress Circle, Seat E113 ($96.50).

Story. Tristan kills Irish Princess Isolde's finance Morold. He is wounded and Isolde heals him with her magic powers. Tristan later returns to Ireland to take Isolde to Cornwall to marry King Marke; however, the two fall in love. When Isolde's maid Brangane substitute a love potion for a poison, the attempted suicide by Tristan and Isolde results in them falling into each other's arms. When the two lovers meet in secret in Cornwall, they are discovered and denounced by the jealous knight Melot. King Marke, who treats Tristan as his own son, is greatly disappointed. After mortally wounded by Melot, Tristan is taken by his friend Kurwenal to Brittany. Marke and Melot come to Brittany; Melot is killed by Kurwenal, who is subsequently killed by the king's soldiers. Marke actually comes to pardon the lovers, but Tristan ends up dying in Isolde's arms, and Isolde dies upon his body. The story concludes with the lovers appearing together in the world beyond.

Conductor - Daniel Barenboim; Isolde - Katarina Dalayman, Brangane - Michelle DeYoung, Tristan - Peter Seiffert, King Marke - Rene Pape.

This is a long opera. The entire production is five hours long, with 2 intermissions of about 1/2 hour each. The role of Tristan is extremely difficult - high notes and a great deal of singing. An analogy would be a pitcher pitching all 18 innings of a double header. I do not know how great a singer Sieffert is, but his voice certainly tailed off at the end. And he had to sing this very long soliloquy in Act III. My reaction was somewhere between admiration and pity.

The Isolde part must be difficult also. But as the Program Notes say, it is a less demanding one. Brangane has to do quite a bit of singing also, and DeYoung did it well. Pape did an excellent job singing the role of King Marke. His voice was so strong that it was a bit out of balance in my view. Nonetheless, he deserved the applause the audience gave him at curtain call.

The story should be simple enough, but I find both the Program synopsis and the English subtitles a bit confusing. Maazel said somewhere that Wagner was a great composer but only a so-so librettist. Similar sentiments by the Program Annotator here.

To me the music has several interesting characteristics. First, we really thought we must know a couple of tunes from this opera, but turns out it sounded all new to us. Second, the tunes are very atonal; I couldn't tell whether some of the a capella singing was in tune, but I would swear it sounded off when the orchestra came in. Third, the English horn played a beautiful tune during Act III; we kept looking, but couldn't find it. Towards Act I there was this brass group in one of the top tier boxes, with their own conductor. We found Brangane in the orchestra pit. Fourth, as suggested by the Program Notes, to illustrate the sentiments of unrequited love, the chords never quite resolve themselves; this gives a strange quality to the music. Fifth, the melodies (such as they are) are mostly found in the orchestra; the singers tend to sing these high notes that provide harmony. Indeed the music made more "sense" when I tried to listen to the orchestra; but that is an unnatural thing to do since one's attention is usually directed to the stage. I am quite sure I will enjoy the opera more when I listen to it again; but there is very little chance of that.

Speaking of staging, this is one of the most minimal sets I have seen at the Met. And frankly, I don't like it. The same basic slanted platform is used as the deck of a ship, a Cornish castle, and a Brittany castle. There are trap doors where soldiers exit, and in Act III there are these miniature statutes to denote the dreamlike recollections of Tristan.

I had never seen Barenboim in person before today. I had a chance to see him play Beethoven's Emperor's Concerto several years ago, but had to give that up because my brother was visiting. From seeing him play on TV, he seems to be quite immobile (although the music is generally great). He looked very animated and engaged when he was conducting this piece, though. Also, he is surprisingly small when standing next to the principal singers at curtain call.

The New York Times reviewer loved Barenboim. He saw the same performance we did. There is this interesting discussion on the use of prompters by the singers, especially Seiffert who evidently wore an earpiece.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Metropolitan Opera - Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, November 14, 2008.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Dress Circle, Seat E17 ($111.50).

Story. See previous blog. Only item to add is the redemption of Marguerite at the end of the opera.

Conductor - James Levine; Faust - Marcello Giordani, Mephistopheles - John Relyea, Brander - Patrick Carfizzi, Marguerite - Susan Graham.

It was only 2 weeks ago that we saw this piece in Chicago, with Charles Dutoit conducting. The performance was done with singers and a rather large chorus. I enjoyed it.

Reading the synopsis would lead one to think this work is not easily amenable to being staged. Indeed the MET program notes indicated that view has been held by most until recently. Robert Lapage, the director, decided to give it a try. We saw the first performance of this new production. The results are quite remarkable.

While the costume is period-indeterminate (Faust as a legend was around in the 16th century, I am sure the devil didn't wear tight-fitting latex then), the staging was definitely modern. I am a traditional when it comes to these matters, but have to say this time it worked very well, and probably was the only way it could work given today's technology.

The main structure is several levels (four) with repeated patterns. Projectors are used to generate images on screens. Quite a few notable ones such as the library at the start, trees turning into deadwood when Mephistopheles walks towards Faust with the scroll, and Faust and Mephistopheles galloping towards hell. There was considerable stagecraft also: dancers dropping into water; Faust falling into hell; cables suspending soldiers as they marched, and devilish figures as they moved about the stage. The use of Marguerite's image as the backdrop while she sang the Romance (accompanied by the English horn) was also very interesting: I thought the image was pre-recorded, Anne – backed by the program notes – said it was live. It is also quite interesting how the soldiers marching up and down the meadow (suspended by wires) would disturb the parts of the video images where they marched. I assume it is from precise choreography rather than super-smart technology, but who knows.

I do have a few minor quibbles. There is this propensity to walk backwards that I find puzzling. It's okay, but don't seem to add to the visual image. They had five people on crosses at one point (they must be acrobats that flip from behind the trusses), but the words were about the risen Christ! And often the imagery reminds me of Fantasia – and Levine conducted the second one. I have only seen TV advertisement images of Cirque du Soleil, but people hanging from wires remind me of those ads; I found out later that Robert Lepage worked on one of the Cirque shows.

Sometimes I thought the staging was a bit too close to being blasphemous (crosses being one example). However, this work is about bargaining with the devil and going to hell for it, so may be it is necessary. I also have been studying the Book of Revelation in preparation for my Sunday school class, and the imageries there are even more challenging. Indeed Anne thought the representation of hell could have been a bit more graphic.

That was quite a writeup on the staging. How was the musical performance? I'm glad I asked.

Levine still sat down during the show, but he certainly showed a great deal of energy, and the orchestra reflected that. Of course since my senses were spread quite thin by the staging, the lighting, the chorus, the singers, the video images, and the action, my observations on the orchestra were limited. However, the music blended very well with other elements of the performance. The soloists were all great. The only weak voice was by Brander who sang the Requiem for the Rat. Marguerite was especially well done.

A few more observations. While the CSO program notes talked about the salvation of Marguerite, there was only orchestra playing during that “scene” and it didn't leave enough of an impression on me to write that salvation down in the “story” part of that blog. The Met had her climb up a long flight of stairs, straight up. I was a bit worried about whether she would fall off. The Met performance started with Faust as an old man reminiscing in the library, which I didn't get from the CSO performance either. (A question: how did he manage to get out of hell?) Even though I heard this only two weeks ago, it felt like a completely different performance. Also, I would say the difference between tonight and November 1 is a great argument for why opera is so different from a regular concert. (Well, opera tickets are also quite a bit more expensive.)

I am glad we got to go to both performances, even though it was mostly due to coincidence. See the New York Times review of the same performance.

Monday, November 10, 2008

New York Philharmonic - Christoph Eschenback, conductor; Lang Lang, piano. November 8, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 2 (Seat D16, $54)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (ca 1795/1800) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1887-94; ed. Orel, 1934) by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896).

We attended this concert with the Yangs. Had dinner at sushi-a-go-go across the street. We managed to get 3 pre-concert talk tickets for the 4 of us, so I (being the knowledgeable one, just kidding) went to Starbucks and had coffee by myself. The Program Notes for today's concert are not that informative, more historical than musical. It talks about which was really Beethoven's first piano concerto, and that Bruckner died before completing the 9th symphony (although he had written about 200 pages of notes for the last movement). Interesting, but didn't add to my appreciation of the pieces.

Beethoven's concerto had a strong hint of Mozart to it, which is to be expected given when it was written. The three movements are Allegro con brio; Largo; and Rondo: Allegro. It's an enjoyable piece. I was a bit disappointed at Lang Lang's performance, especially since we heard Andre Watts play the piece several months ago. I was very impressed with how Watts brought out the structure of the piece. Lang Lang failed to do so, which is made worse, in my opinion, by his penchant for showmanship. The cadenza he chose was written by Beethoven (I am not familiar with it), it just sounded too long and I actually wished that it would end earlier than it did. The second movement's lead in by the piano was wandering and unfocused. Nonetheless, the crowd gave the performance a standing ovation, which I attribute to "name-recognition" rather than true appreciation. In any case, Lang Lang the musician isn't quite at the level of Lang Lang the virtuoso yet.

The Bruckner symphony's three movements are (i) Feierlich, misterioso; (ii) Scherzo: Bewegt, Lebhaft; Trio: Schnell; and (iii) Adagio: Langsam, Feierlich. Since I don't know Austrian (I'm not sure there is such a language), and have forgotten most of my German, I needed google-translate to know (a) feierlich = solemnly; (b) misterioso = mysteriously (not even a German word); (c) bewegt = with movement; (d) lebhaft = vividly; and (e) langsam = slowly. The actual performance was longer than the advertised 59 minutes; imagine what it would be like if Bruckner got to finish it. Anne and I were quite sure we heard this before, played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, but the piece sounded unfamiliar. And I probably will say the same thing when I listen to it next time. Not that it was unpleasant, just that I didn't quite get what Bruckner was trying to say. In any case, the piece calls for four Wagner Tubas, which (according to on-line resources) is a brass instrument somewhat like a horn and a tuba combination. It evidently comes in different sizes and pitches.

The Wagner Tuba (in F)

Eschenbach is an energetic conductor. He did both pieces without music, I guess he is another of those whose mind remembers millions of musical notes. He seems to concentrate on one section at a time, and expects the rest of the orchestra to know when to begin and end a note or a phrase. Overall it worked fine, but every now and then the orchestra sounded sloppy. He is German but has had many prestigious international appointments.

This would have been a great concert had I not have such high expectations of it. The New York Times gave a mostly positive review of Lang's performance, calling the cadenza "beyond reproach", although the reviewer thought it was at times excessive also. We didn't get the encore performance the review did the previous evening.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Chicago Symphony Orchestra – Charles Dutoit, conductor. November 1, 2008.

Symphony Center, Chicago. Upper Balcony Center Left (Seat Q103, $59)

The Damnation of Faust, Dramatic Legend in Four Parts, Op. 24 (1846) by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Part I: Plains of Hungary
Part II: North Germany
Part III: Marguerite's Room
Part IV

Story. Mephistopheles arranges Faust and Marguerite, who are in each other's dreams, to meet. They fall in love, and then part ways. Marguerite is condemned to death because she accidentally killed her mother. Faust signs over his life to Mephistopheles to save Marguerite but is transported to hell instead.

Susanne Mentzer, Mezzo-soprano (Marguerite)
Gregory Kunde, Tenor (Faust)
David Wilson-Johnson, Baritone (Mephistopheles)
Jonathan Lemalu, Bass (Brander)
Chicago Symphony Chorus – Duain Wolfe, director
Anima-Young Singers of Greater Chicago – Emily Ellsworth, director

We booked these tickets for our short trip to Chicago. The CSO, which began in 1891, is quite famous, having been led by such luminaries as Fritz Reiner, Gerog Solti and Daniel Barenboim. The building is named after the first director Theodore Thomas. The current director is Bernard Haitink who is now about 80 years old. The concert hall is also quite impressive, it reminds one of Carnegie Hall, except it's probably quite a bit bigger (we had to walk up to the fifth floor to our seats.) Both visibility and acoustics are good: we had a good view and could hear clearly. Orchestra members arere seated on multiple levels, making them clearly visible to the audience. There were quite a few empty seats in our section.

The orchestra, like any large orchestra, has 90 to 100 members. The chorus was quite big with 150 members, and at the end another 50 young children joined in. So there were altogether about 250 performers. Two sets of timpani (4 drums in each set) played at times by four people and brass instruments in the background make for interesting spectacle.

The work is quite long, 2 hours and 15 miinutes of actual performance. We were a bit worried about having to take the subway back to the hotel; it turned out okay though.

The program notes talk about some of the unforgettable sounds (and I quote): the brazen swagger of the Hungarian March; the flash that brings Mephistopheles and blinds Faust to all reason; the drunken “Amen” fugue sung over the demise of a rat; the remarkably sensuous, yet icy tone of Mephistopheles's lullaby, uncannily accompanied by cornet, trombones, and bassoons; the brilliant clash of two simultaneous choruses – the soldiers singing in B-flat major and in French, the students in D minor in Latin. Or the stirring heartbeats in Marguerite's music; the plaintive voice of the solo viola in her “The King of Thule” or the heartbreaking English horn solo of her Romance; Mephistopheles's Serenade, with its grand guitar strumming; Faust's noble, impassioned Invocation to Nature; the lone, ominous call of hunting horns that precedes Faust's downfall; the wild, reckless, galloping Ride to the Abyss; the final horrible babbling of the damned. We caught most of them. I am embarrassed to say the only piece familiar to me is the “Hungarian March.” The gibberish (“Has has”) sung by the chorus of the damned was quite entertaining.

For a dramatic legend, the performance wasn't particularly dramatic. They did put up subtitles in English (sung mostly in French), but the program notes don't have a copy of the libretto. The story is a bit strange, but I don't know if it is faithful to Goethe.

Not a bad concert, but not a great one either. Perhaps it was the flat dynamics, or perhaps the tenor, who had most of the singing role, wasn't that great. I am glad to have a chance to see the orchestra though. Loren Maazel and the New York Philharmonic have nothing to be ashamed of.

It turns out we booked “Faust” tickets as part of our Metropolitan Opera subscription. James Levein will be conducting, and the work will be staged. I wonder how the performances would compare.

The Tribune critic was impressed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

New York Philharmonic - David Robertson, conudctor; Leonidas Kavakos, violin. October 25, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 2 (Seat E4, $54)

Symphony No. 34 in C major, K. 338 (1780) by Mozart (1756-91).
Violin Concerto No. 2 BB117 (1937-38) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1882-83) by Brahms (1833-97).

We exchanged another concert for this one due to scheduling conflict, and then realized (i) we would be coming back to NYC after yesterday's concert by the National Chorale, and (ii) Kavakos would be playing another relatively modern piece. Anyhow, here we are.

People (well, the New York Times anyway) keep saying how great a programmer Robertson is. Tonight's concert comprised of a piece each from the 18th, 19th and 20th century, so at least we get to listen to music from vastly different periods.

Robertson conducted the Mozart Symphony with great gusto; a bit much for my taste. And I kept asking, how could he possibly make it more exciting for the Bartok and Beethoven pieces. Turns out he couldn't, which isn't necessarily an indictment on how the latter pieces were performed. In any case, I am not familiar with this particular symphony, and it was quite enjoyable. It came in the standard three movements of Allegro vivace; Andante di molto (piu tosto Allegretto); and Finale - Allegro vivace. There is a remark in the Program Notes about how interesting the tempo marking for the second movement was, which I am sure only an annotator would find interesting.

A couple of observations. A reduced orchestra was used for this symphony, and all the first violin players were women. Mozart was known for his love of the viola and supposedly wrote nice double parts for the instrument (in the slow movement). We were up front, on the right side of the audience, and had a good view of the viola section. Still I had to strain to hear the part(s).

I last heard Kavakos play (in 2005) the Violin Concerto by Henri Dutilleux, and had some choice words for the music and the performance. Today's performance was better, or I should say not as bad. I usually enjoy Bartok and violin music. However, this concerto seemed to wander all over the place, I couldn't figure out what Bartok was trying to say, except to demonstrate the ability of the violinist. We were seated at the front, and had a good view of the performer. The sound of his Stradivarius was great, especially in the higher registers (surprisingly weak on the low notes), and Kavakos' technique is impeccable. Unfortunately, when the performance ended I could say only "Oh, it's over." A couple of additional remarks: this time he played the piece from memory, which is quite remarkable; and the pounding the violin took was simply brutal, it had to be retuned after the first movement.

The concerto's three movements are: Allegro non troppo, Andante tranquillo, and Allegro molto, although I am not sure why Bartok bothered with the markings. Also, notice there is no key to the music. There are supposedly quarter tones towards the end of the first movement; I caught the passage (it was written in the program) but not sure I could distinguish a quarter tone from a half tone. Bartok had written an earlier violin concerto but never published it. So there is debate how tonight's concerto should be numbered; again, great fodder for an annotator.

As with the other two pieces, I am not familiar with the third Brahms Symphony. The movements are Allegro con brio; Andante; Poco allegretto; and Allegro - Un poco sostenuto. It is relatively short, and sounded very much like Beethoven. The Program Notes contain enthusiastic words penned by Clara Schumann. I wish I can find the same excitement.

All in all, tonight's was a program that looks interesting on the surface but falls flat in the actual execution. See the New York Times review. They are surprised that the audience wasn't as enthusiastic either.

The National Chorale - Martin Josman, Music Director. October 24, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Third Tier Left (Seat BB108, $56).

Micele Capalbo, Soprano; Janara Kellerman, Alto; Daniel Weeks, Tenor; Grant Youngblood, Bass
Schicksalslied (1871) by Johannes Brahms.
Singet dem Herrn (1746) by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1824) by Ludwig van Beethoven.

We bought a 3-concert series to the National Chorale performances at the suggestion of our friend Chung Shu. Tonight's was the first. Joining Anne & me were Chung Shu, Shirley, and Pastor Al. Before the concert we spent a few hours at MoMA (with the special van Gogh exhibit)and had dinner at MEE. Anne didn't go to MoMA but joined us for dinner.

We have noticed the same National Chorale poster outside Avery Fisher Hall year after year, but never got around to going to any of the concerts. In addition to tonight's, we will be going to the Messiah and Carmina Burana concerts later in the season.

Overall this was a disappointment. It was more form than substance, starting with the colorful dresses worn by the women members of the chorale. And the adjustments they had to make in where they stand was another example of show over substance. The orchestra was small (especially for the Symphony), so was the chorale at about 50 members. Perhaps that's because of budget constraints? It begs the question of why do we need this chorale when other organizations (e.g., NY Philharmonic and Choral Artists) and capable of putting out perfectly adequate performances.

Tonight was the "Opening Gala" and, alas, the concert hall was only about half full. The director looks quite a bit older than the picture in the posters would indicate, and could have put a little more energy in the conducting.

Let's hope future performances are better. I am a bit leary of the Messiah one as it is so familiar.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. September 20, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat DD12, $54).

Rhapsodies for Orchestra (2008) by Steven Stucky (b. 1949).
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).
Suite from Ma Mere I'Oye (Mother Goose; 1980-1910; 1911) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Pantomime in One Act, Op. 19 (1917-19) by Bartok (1881-1945).

This was the first New York Philharmonic concert of the season for us. Our friends Chung-shu and Shirley also had tickets for this concert; and they bought additional tickets for Pastor Al and Miss Ruth; so there were 6 of us. Too bad we had to go up in separate cars as no one had a car that could take six. We had dinner at China Fun before going to the concert.

We saw Stucky in a “conversation” with Leonard Slatkin on stage last season. He got his doctorate from Cornell, where I had a couple of years of music education. He has done far better than me: he is a Pulitzer-prize winner and a chaired professor at the school. Among his composition teachers was Karel Husa, who conducted the Cornell Symphony while I was a violinist in the orchestra. Alas, that didn't translate to my enjoying the piece. The word “rhapsodies” gives people the impression of joy, rapture, and excitement. If one insists, one can get that in the music. However, I felt the both the dynamic and tonal range could have been broader. I could be charitable and attribute it to the acoustics at my seat ... The good news is that the piece was 10 minutes long rather than the advertised 12 minutes.

The was the U.S. premiere for the piece. It was played earlier the month at the BBC proms. So happens we heard over the radio the program on the last evening while driving around Michigan.

We heard Bronfman before, and enjoyed his performance. Somehow things seemed a bit off tonight. Make no mistake, the music is very difficult (program notes called it “Mount Everest of piano concertos”), and Bronfman's playing was brilliant at times. But musically the piece sounded disjoint, and muffled at times. The concerto is very melodious, and is enjoyable even though the performance wasn't as good as it could be. Bronfman is on the heavy side, but he still managed to lift himself from the seat at multiple locations. The audience gave him a tremendous ovation afterwards. For the record, the movements are (i) Allegro ma non tanto, (ii) Intermezzo. Allegro, and (iii) Finale. Alla breve.

We last saw the concerto performed in 2005 by Simon Trpceski, with Gianandra Noseda conducting the New York Philharmonic. Looking back at my notes, I wasn't completely satisfied either.

The Ravel Suite was written originally for the piano. It was dedicated to the children of Ravel's good friend; the premiere was played by two other youngsters. Ravel later orchestrated the piece. The Suite consists of a series of movements (played without noticeable pauses) which are (i) Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty, (ii) Tom Thumb, (iii) Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas, (iv) Conversations of Beauty and the Beast, and (v) Apotheosis, The Enchanted Garden. Unfortunately, the notes are more interesting than the music itself!

I remember hearing The Miraculous Mandarin by Bartok before. Not so much the music itself, but the story behind it. This is before my "blogging" days, so I have no record of the event to counter Anne's insistence that we had never seen it. [Later note: I did save a copy of the concert program on 10/2/2004.] The story, about a visit to a prostitutes' den by a wealthy Chinese man, is grotesque and vulgar. If you don't know the story, the music is quite okay. (Generally I enjoy Bartok's music.) With the story in mind, though, it is a different situation. Perhaps that's the whole point?

The program notes talks about three post-WWI pieces that still have shock value today, The Miraculous Mandarin being one of them. Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps is one that I am very familiar with. However, I had not heard of the sado-masochistic Chout by Prokofiev.

The New York Times has an interesting (not necessarily insightful) review of an earlier performance. The program was good enough for the reviewer that he thinks it should be used for the season opener. That evening two pieces were played as encores. I am quite sure they didn't do it on Saturday as we left the concert hall quite late. In any case, the concert was a bit longer than usual, ending at 10:15 pm.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Opera Australia – Verdi's Otello, August 16, 2008.

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House – Seat Circle L25 (A$135).

Simon Hewett – conductor; Dennis O'Neill – Otello, Cheryl Barker – Desdemona, Jonaathan Summers – Iago, Kanen Breen – Cassio, Jaqueline Dark – Emilia, Andrew Brunsdon – Roderigo.

Story. See previous blog.

I had the choice of picking either Otello or Lucia di Lammermoor to see today. I picked Otello because it was a matinee and Ruth didn't want to stay up late for the evening show. I like the performance I saw at the Met also, so wouldn't mind seeing it again. Also we were late for that performance and missed the first act. This knowing full well the opera is not quite singable and the drama is the element that carries the performance along. In addition to Ruth and Steven, Ling and Wally also saw the opera with me.

I was disappointed at tonight's performance. It wasn't so much it was a bad performance, but rather it didn't succeed at any of the elements that make a performance great.

First, the whole performance felt disjointed. The “dialog”, the music, the acting, they all seemed to move from element to element without much continuity. I felt this way from five minutes into the show, and the feeling remained till the end. My experience at the Met was a compelling story propelled along by a great sense of doom and urgency.

The staging for Act I was okay. They used many steps as both the deck of a ship and the square where the fight between Cassio and Roderigo took place. It got monotonous when they used it for Act II, Act III, and then Act IV! More ridiculous than minimalist. Staging is part of what makes an opera enjoyable, but evidently the stage manager wasn't aware of that. People were dressed in non-period specific costumes. The brown uniforms worn by the soldiers remind me of Nazis, which probably isn't the intention of the designer. It's a matter of debate whether one should “modernize” these works, and I am a traditionalist when it comes to this matter.

Otello traditionally is painted with a black face to show his Moorish heritage. This wasn't done at today's performance. Probably political correctness carried to an extreme. I am Chinese, and I wasn't at all offended at Domingo being portrayed (and made up) as Chinese in the First Emperor. I am sure there are few people as sensitive as the Chinese ...

I do not know the singers, so didn't know what to expect. Desdemona seemed only capable of reaching the higher notes by belting them out. Even though I “enjoyed” the Willow Song and Ave Maria, I wish she had whispered them rather than shouted them (well, she wasn't that bad). Nonetheless, perhaps to have the same expectations of Cheryl Barker as Renee Fleming is unfair – to Fleming. Otello's voice was quite weak, and he was a bit on the stocky side. Don Jose of Carmen was another Opera Australia person that was a bit on the heavy side – do we have a pattern here? Anyway, Otello seemed to manage the stairs without a lot of difficulty, good for him.

The orchestra played reasonably well, but there wasn't much drama to the music, a real pity for “unsingable” operas.

I am quite amazed at how different the levels of performance is between a production by the Met and one by Opera Australia. Something that seems to come out with ease from the Met appears to be very difficult to piece together by a lesser company, even though the story is by Shakespeare and the music is by Verdi, both acknowledged masters in their genres.

I bought a program for AUD 15 since there were 5 of us, against my "principle" and better judgment. There was very little additional information in it. It does contain one article contrasting how Verdi and Shakespeare treated the different characters, worthy of a college paper. As I suspected, most of the pages were advertisements.

The Sydney Morning Herald gave the opera a raving review. (I hate to sound snobbish) Perhaps the reviewer, Peter McCallum, should go out more often.

Benefit Concert for China Earthquake Victims – Yi Heng Yang, piano; Gloria Vasconcellos - harp; Max Zeugner – double bass, August 3, 2008.

Lincroft Bible Church Sanctuary, Lincroft, NJ.

L'Egyptienne by Jean Phillipe-Rameau; Gloria Vasconcellos, harp.
Toccata by Nicolas-Charles Bochsa; Vasconcellos.
Fantasy pieces, Op. 73 by Robert Schumann; Max Zeugner, double bass & Yi-heng Yang, piano.
(Zart und mit ausdruck - Lebhaft, leicht - Rasch und mit feuer)
Scherzo no. 4, Op. 54 by Frederic Chopin; Yang.
Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 10, no. 4 by Frederic Chopin, arranged for double bass by F. Sevitsky; Zeugner & Yang.
Tango by Jean Michel Damase; Vasconcellos.
Une Chatelaine en sa tour by Gabriel Faure; Vasconcellos.
Argpeggione Sonata, D. 821 by Franz Schubert; Zeugner & Yang.
(Adagio - Allegretto)
Lullaby by He Lau-Ting; Zeugner, Vasconcellos & Yang.

In May of this year, a huge earthquake (close to 8 on the Richter scale)) occurred in Sichuan Province, causing many deaths and much property damage. The three musicians today performed a concert at which they collected good will offering for disaster relief.

I have never been to a concert where these three instruments were featured together as solo instruments. Actually I have never heard the double bass as a solo instrument. The program was quite long (may be totaling 1 hour 15 minutes or so), most of the pieces would be what I call occasional, light music (doesn't mean easy to play) composed by the likes of Chopin and Schubert.

About 100 people attended, by my estimate. The auditorium can pack in maybe 400 people, so it felt a little too cavernous. Nonetheless, the performance was quite enjoyable. There was some discussion about the acoustics. Instead of holding the concert at MCCC (which sponsored the concert), LBC was chosen because it should work better for the harp. However, the relative loudness of the instruments would still work differently at different locations.

Yi Heng and Max came to our boat for a ride on the Navesink river afterwards, and we talked some more about the concert. Most (if not all) of solo music for the double bass is transcribed from music written for other instruments. The “double” in “double bass” denotes the propensity for composers (especially before the romantic period) to simply write a part that is an octave lower than the cello: it is very obvious if you watch an orchestra play. I believe the New York Philharmonic simply call them the bass section.

Max played the double bass standing up, and had to reach down to get the high registers. This can't be easy on the back. Most bassists play the instrument sitting on a high stool, less stress on the body, but more limiting in range of motion. It actually sounded very like a cello, which may be the ultimate praise (or insult) to a bass player. And they do carry them around from performance to performance. No small cars for these musicians, oversize luggage for airplanes.

The last piece by a Chinese composer was written for the piano and another instrument (I forget which) which they transcribed for the bass, and then asked the harpist to add something to it so the three of them can play together.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Vienna Chamber Orchestra – Mark Laycock, conductor; David Meier, piano. July 24, 2008.

Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University. Row 1, Balcony Center.


Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 “Eroica” by Beethoven.

Our friends David and Vivian told us about this free concert. They were nice enough to get to Princeton early to pick up tickets for us. Good thing they did: there was a long line waiting for returns when we got there at 7:30 pm or so.

The Vienna Chamber Orchestra consists of about 40 musicians (I counted 8 first violins, 6 second, 5 violas, 4 cellos, 3 double basses, oboe, clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 flutes, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, and a timpani: working from memory, so not completely sure). It is on the small side to play a grand symphony such as the Eroica. The auditorium seats perhaps 1000 people but is surprising intimate, that made the small orchestra less of an issue. They also have done some improvements (like bathrooms on the first floor) since we last visited about 3 years ago. The conductor was “local” but now lives in Berlin.

David Meier is a relatively young man (born 1977). I found his playing to be adequate but not inspiring. He is in some fierce competition though: I heard recently Andre Watts playing concerto No. 1 and Emmanuel Ax playing No. 5 with the New York Philharmonic. It will take Meier a while to catch up with these masters' technique and musicality. Many runs were sloppy, and he used too much pedal for my taste.

The symphony performance was also a bit sloppy. Perhaps we were too close to the orchestra, but oftentimes I would hear the concertmaster or the principals play the notes much more loudly than the rest of the sections, which is a bit disconcerting (no pun intended). Laycock did conduct from memory though. For some reason I am very familiar with the first three movements, but not with the fourth.

One word about the programming notes. They are published in memory of the author, so I don't want to say too much about them. Nonetheless, it reminds me of my college days studying music (actually the Beethoven symphony was one piece we studied) and analyzing the structure of the piece in about the same way. Looking back, it probably was a necessary part of a formal education, but the annotation didn't provide a lot of insight beyond an academic analysis.

The biographical notes of the conductor contains multiple mentions of the word “maestro”. I don't mean to belittle his accomplishments, but the biography certainly reminds me of this Seinfeld episode where the conductor says something like “I know for a fact his (Leonard Bernstein) friends called him maestro”.

The orchestra played as the encore piece Strauss's Blue Danube (what else would one expect?) I didn't realize the piece was that long. Given the late start (probably to find seats for people waiting), we didn't get out until after 10:30 pm.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, conductor. June 7, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center – First Tier Center (Seat BB16, $59).


Symphony No. 9 (1908-1910) by Mahler (1860-1911).

I have always enjoyed Maazel conducting the Mahler symphonies, so I was looking forward to tonight's concert. Mahler was rather superstitious about the 9th symphony being many composers' last (Beethoven, Schubert and Dvorak). Indeed it was completed a year before he died of a heart bacterial infection and Mahler never got to listen to it performed. He left behind some sketches for a tenth symphony, though. It is very long at an advertised 79 minutes; in reality it was even longer at close to 90 minutes altogether.

It is difficult to characterize this symphony. Despite its length, it is not as complex as some of Mahler's other symphonies. Orchestration is simple by modern standards, there are no unusual instruments, although he did employ the tam-tam, snare drum, chimes, and two sets of timpani. The second timpani player also doubled as a base drum player.

Interestingly, Mahler scored one harp for the orchestra but tonight's performance followed Bruno Walter's score which divided the the part between two harps. The division was clearly uneven as the second harp doesn't have much to do. Anyway, some rather haunting tones are generated by the harps during the first and fourth movements.

The first movement (Andante comodo) is the longest at about 35 minutes. I like to describe Mahler's symphonies as wandering from scene to scene, and the 9th is like that also. The movement's tempo is slow, which is not common for a first movement. The second and third movements are each about 15 minutes. The second (In the tempo of a comfortable landler, somewhat clumsy and very coarse, what a tempo marking) is rather light-hearted, and I didn't hear much coarseness. The third movement (Rondo: Burleske (Allegro assai, very insolent)) is on the mischievous and giddy side, and Maazel's conducting reflected the mood with various motions of his arms and twist of his body. The last movement (Adagio (Very slow, and even holding back)) reminds me of one of Apostle Paul's epistles. He was only half-done when he said “finally”. Similar, the music went on for another 5 to 10 minutes after I thought it had come to an end. The ending was a bit much, with the same motif repeated many times.

The audience gave Maazel a hearty applause after the performance. The gentleman next to me clearly enjoyed the performance. I think there were four curtain calls. This is our last New York Philharmonic concert for the season, and I believe the orchestra has another one to go (“Tosca in Concert”). Next season will be Maazel's last with the New York Philharmonic, perhaps there is a nostalgic element to the reaction? In any case, I am impressed with his level of energy.

While I enjoyed this concert, and Maazel is dependable when it comes to Mahler, I thought it could have been better. This may be the music, or Maazel's conducting; I don't know the music well enough to tell.

The New York Times review uncharacteristically is all praise for Maazel's performance.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

New York Philharmonic – David Robertson, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano. May 31, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center – Orchestra 1 (Seat L8, $59).


Three Etudes for Piano (1915; orch. 1992) by Debussy (1862-1918)/M. Jarrell (b. 1958)

Rendering for Orchestra (1988-90) by Schubert-Berio (1797-1828; 1925-2003)

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, Emperor (1809) by Beethoven (1770-1827)

The current issue of Playbill talks about David Robertson skills as a programmer. The program he chose for tonight is certainly unusual, which doesn't necessarily means good. The first two pieces were just baffling. One would think the orchestra has better music to do.

Debussy's Three Etudes for Piano were described as masterpieces by the program annotator. They are (i) for repeated notes, (ii) for opposing sonorities, and (iii) for chords. The transcription into orchestra music by Jarrell might have been great accomplishments for a composer, but still leaves one with the question of “why?”

Robertson illustrated what Berio did to compose Rendering. He would have the piano play out a simple line and then the orchestra play Berio's rendition. Which sounded reasonable enough. The program lists the three movements (Allegro, Andante, and Allegro) which would lead one to expect a Schubert-like symphony. But when the entire work is played, one noticed very little Schubert in the music; the piece sounded very contemporary, which I should have expected in hindsight. Alas, this piece is also about three times as long as the Debussy Etudes. This is probably a symphony only a musicologist would love.

Anne was relaying an interview WQXR had with Emmanuel Ax, who describes himself as lazy and needs to force himself to get the several hours of practice in every morning. We heard Ax several years ago at Tanglewood and enjoyed the performance despite all the distractions associated with an open concert hall (The Koussevitzky Shed).

How honest! Beethoven's concerts are difficult for amateurs technically, but are usually not a problem with professionals, much less someone of Ax's stature and reputation. But he managed to put in a technically flawed performance, botching many notes, some of the runs just sounded muddy. It is a tribute to him as a musician that the overall performance was quite enjoyable. Actually the audience clamored for more and Ax played (I believe) a Chopin piece as an encore. I have to contrast Ax with Andre Watts whom we heard recently. Admittedly Beethoven No. 1 is much easier than No. 5, but still Watts managed to make the music come across clearly, with a well-defined structure.

Overall though, I still find the concert quite enjoyable. That may yet prove the genius of Robertson's programming, or it may just be my feeling good after two concerts today.

See the New York Times review. It contains some additional interesting facts about the Schubert piece. The reviewer is obviously a fan of Robertson's.

American Ballet Theater – Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, May 31, 2008.

Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center – Orchestra BB118 ($79).

Conductor – David LaMarche; Odette-Odile – Veronika Part, Prince Siegfried – David Hallberg, von Rothbart – Vitali Krauchenka and Marcelo Gomes.

Story. Prince Siegfried is given a crossbow on his birthday. He retreats to the lake and sees the swan Odette who is under von Rothbart's spell. She is destined to turn back into a swan every night unless she finds true love. Evening comes, von Rothbart returns and Odette disappears. That evening, the Queen throws a party for Siegfried, after several young ladies are introduced, von Rothbart shows up with Odile. Siegfried falls in love with Odile, and Odette weeping is noticed by Siegfried who races to the lake to catch up with her. Odette says she must kill herself or she will forever remain a swan, and the two lovers do so by throwing themselves into the lake. They are seen united in life after death.

I have to say this is a much more enjoyable ballet than Le Corsaire. Of course, Swan Lake is a well-know ballet, and the music is often played on a stand-alone basis. Many of the tunes are well known and lovely; some violin solos are just exquisite pieces. I was a bit surprised that the story doesn't hang together as well as I thought it would, though. And how does a swan kill itself? In this story she jumps into a lake. Siegfried's jump is very impressive though, I hope whatever is catching him off stage is very sturdy.

Being ballet, there are still puzzling elements to the work. I can understand why von Rothbart has to be played by two different artists, the transition from the devil to the human may just be too quick to pull off. Odette and Odile are played by the same person. That confuses me. Other than to show off the skills of the ballerina, there is no conceivable reason why this is so. They are not related (other than both names begin with “O”), one is a person turned into a swan, the other is a devil's daughter who can take on human form. One wears white, the other wears black. And each would be an important role by itself.

There are some nice numbers, such as the pas de deux of Odette and the prince. And Odile gets to do the most impressive dance where I counted 29 spins. The many other swans (are they also under the spell?) are nice. Again ABT disappoints somewhat with imprecision.

The orchestra had a somewhat limited dynamic range. The violin solos were botched somewhat, the soloist seemed to have problems with intonation. And one of the dancers fell as she was about to exit the stage – must have hurt.

Overall though, the nice music, graceful movements, athletic feats, beautiful costumes, and some staging effects add up to a very enjoyable performance.

The New York Times review of this run is of a different dancer, who did 32 of these “foutte turns”. Perhaps I did Ms. Part injustice by miscounting?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

American Ballet Theater – Le Corsaire, May 24, 2008.

Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. Orchestra AA103 ($81).

Conductor – Ormsky Wilkins; Conrad – Marcelo Gomes, Birbanto – Sascha Radetsky, Ali – Ethan Stiefel, Lankendem – Jose Manuel Carreno, Medora – Paloma Herrera, Gulnare – Maria Riccetto, Seyd – Victor Barbee.

Story: Slave girls are being sold by Lankendem at a noisy bazaar in Turkey. Pirate Conrad arrives and falls in love with Medora. The pasha Seyd arrives and buys Gulnare and Medora. Conrad instructs his slave Ali to steal Medora and the pirates kidnaps Lankendem. Conrad gets into an argument with his friend Birbanto about freeing the slave girls; Birbanto wants to start a revolt but is thwarted, he then gives a poisoned flower to Conrad via Medora to drug him into a sleep. Lankendem manages to steal Medora back and escapes. When Conrad wakes up Birbanto feigns ignorance. The pasha declares Medora will be his wife, falls asleep, and dreams of lovely women in a beautiful garden. Conrad, Birbanto, and other pirates show up in disguise and chase away the pasha and his guards. Medora exposes Birbanto for what he is and Conrad kills him. They all flee to the ship which is then capsized by a storm. The ballet ends with Conrad and Medora clinging to a rock and offering thanks for their miraculous survival.

Ballet remains a strange art form to me. To illustrate my point, some production credits (from Playbill). Staging by Anna Marie Holmes after Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev. Music by Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Leo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo and Prince Oldenrourg. Music reorchestrated by Kevin Galie. Libretto by Jules Henri de Saint-Goerges and Joseph Mazilier in a version by Anna Marie Holmes. Based on The Corsair (1814) by Lord Byron.

So, who wrote the music? Did the four composers get together to write the piece? Or did someone string the pieces together – and who is that someone? What is libretto in ballet? There were no words said during the entire show, except a couple of grunts. While the story hangs together well enough, it is mainly a series of excuses for the dancers to do their thing. For example, the three slave girls got to dance individually, in pairs, and as a trio (well, I may be exaggerating a bit).

I have no idea who is who in ballet, but the slave (only bare-chested fellow) drew a hearty applause from the audience when he first appeared, and Anne claims he is quite well-known. He didn't dance too many numbers, perhaps they were all technically demanding? I don't know. Anne was watching this PBS show about Nureyev, and he supposedly danced this role to great acclaim also. If precision is the hallmark of a great ballet troupe, then ABT isn't quite there. If it were an orchestra, there would be utter chaos. Quite a few young girls danced in this production, and many of them were able to stand on their toes, which I found quite impressive. The pasha provided some comic relief, even though he only had to walk.

In any event, the music was nice, the dance movements pleasing to the eye, and length of the program not too long, so it was an afternoon well spent.

One other thing, the audience. Naturally many children (I assume they are taking ballet lessons) attended the ballet, and the audience was therefore noisier. What I didn't expect was the readiness of people to take empty seats. It's quite okay with me, but we saw instances where people holding those seats hadn't left and everyone had to move back.

The New York Times review is quite interesting. I am glad I am correct in saying the ballet is mainly constructed so the dancers can show off their skills.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Metropolitan Opera – Tan Dun's The First Emperor, May 17, 2008.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Orchestra, Seat AA28 ($150).

Conductor – Tan Dun; Libretto – Ha Jin and Tan Dun; Emperor Qin – Placido Domingo, General Wang – Hao Jiang Tian, Princess Yueyang – Sarah Coburn, Gao Jianli – Paul Groves.

Story. Emperor Qin iss tired of the traditional music and wants Gao Jianli, his children friend, to write a new anthem for him. Qin conquers the Yan state and has Gao brought in as a prisoner. Gao refuses to write the anthem and goes on a hunger strike. Qin's daughter, Princesss Yueyang, goes about convincing Gao to end his hunger strike by feeding him from her own month. After the two fall in love and makes love, Yueyang, who was paralyzed from a riding accident, miraculously regains use of her legs. Yueyang was promised to General Wang and the Princess commits suicide when the Emperor forces her to marry Wang. As Qin gets ready to ascend to the throne, Yueyang's ghost appears to tell Qin that she couldn't sacrifice her love for her country. This is followed by the ghost of Wang, who was killed by Gao. Finally Gao shows up, commits suicide by biting off his own tongue. Qin then asks the anthem to be sung, and is shocked to discover it is the song of the slaves being forced to build the great wall.

I was looking forward to seeing this opera after listening to Tan Dun's piano concerto played by Lang Lang. While “modern,” the concerto was still well-structured enough for me to make sense of it, and it also showcased Lang Lang's ability, which was what Tan set out to do. I was somewhat disappointed by the opera, although there were many impressive aspects to it.

Tan Dun talks about the three techniques he used to bring out the three colors of Qin culture: tri-tone as black, continuance of the fourth as white, and highest to lowest note as red. While somewhat interesting, the motifs were not particularly appealing, and soon became monotonous. Unfortunately, Tan seemed to have fallen in love with this discovery and saturated the opera with them.

Other than the Peking-opera style introduction by the Yin-yang Master, which was in Chinese, the opera was sung in English. I was glad they had subtitles as I found the sung dialog difficult to follow. Placido Domingo sang the role of Qin. One of the famous “three tenors” with Pavoratti and Carreras, Domingo has an active schedule as a director, conductor, and performer. While he was good, I always find his voice to be a bit weak. I am glad I had a chance to see him though: I had seen him conduct a few times before, this was the first time I saw him sing. A couple of Asian singers were in the operas (e.g., General Wang and the shaman).

The staging is mostly based on what I would describe as bleachers. Nonetheless, it was effective and pleasant. I find the colors to be well designed, and the costumes add a lot of glamor appropriate for a regal setting. The masks worn on the back by the Yin-yang masters, which make them transform from dark to light by turning around, are quite ingenious (I assume this technique is well-known in the trade.)

Although Qin was indeed the first Chinese emperor who unified the country by conquering many of the surrounding warring states, and started the Great Wall, he was generally considered a brutal and ruthless person. While the opera makes no excuses for his brutality, it does illustrate the more human aspects of him. I didn't know this story until I came across this opera, which is supposed to be based on an account by the well-known historian Sima Qian (c. 145-85 BCE).

When I was a child, I had seen movies where people committed suicide by biting off their tongues. I imagine the profuse bleeding would be the cause of death. In this opera Qin “helped” Gao by stabbing him with a sword afterwards. Somewhat like hari-kiri. Macabre, but makes sense if one thinks about it.

I am glad to have seen this opera, I'm not sure I'll want to see it again, though.

The New York Times reviewer thought some of the musical passages outlived their welcome, and that the opera could be shorter still (it was trimmed by about half an hour from its 2007 debut).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

New York Philharmonic – Charles Dutoit, conductor; Andre Watts, piano. April 26, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat O6, $59).


Overture to Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492 (1786) by Mozart (1756-91).

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (ca. 1795/1800) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

La Valse (1919-20) by Ravel (1875-1937).

We got tickets to this concert because we wanted to hear Martha Arguerich, whom we had heard several times before. But she had taken ill and Andre Watts was asked to substitute. Andre Watts is a well-regraded pianist, so it was no disappointment at all for us. Beethoven's first piano concerto (which turns out wasn't the first he wrote, it is his second) did not have the flourish of his later piano works, I would even attribute it to Mozart if I didn't know the work.

In any case, Watts played very well. His playing had a very well defined structure to it, phrasing was exquisite. The full dynamic range of the piano was utilized. We were seated quite close to the stage, so we could tell he enjoyed playing as much as the audience enjoyed listening to him.

The short piece that began the program was a light-hearted piece. We usually hear it as a “real” overture (i.e., part of an opera performance.) Good as the Met Opera's Orchestra is, the New York Philharmonic managed to make them look like amateurs. While this is a relatively simple piece, it does make one appreciate how good the Philharmonic can be.

The rest of the program was quite enjoyable. Rachmaninoff's Dances didn't sound like his usual melodic piano concertos or symphonies, but were nonetheless pleasant. Ravel evidently had a habit of writing “tribute” music, in this case (evidently) to the Viennese Waltz. However, the events of the time made him quite disillusioned about the decadent lifestyle of that period, so the piece showed a “dark side,” which made it quite interesting.

Unfortunately I am writing this about three weeks after the concert, so don't remember much of how I felt about the concert. That's the whole point of having these written blogs, isn't it?

Dutoit, whom I had always thought was French or Canadian, turned out to be Swiss. Anne noticed the hairpiece he was wearing. The texture was similar to the rest of his hair, but the color match could have been better. Now I cannot get the image off my mind! He did put out an enjoyable performance, though.

See the New York Times review. The reviewer thinks highly of Dutoit and the program also; it is interesting to note that in the reviewer's opinion the pairing between Dutoit and the Philharmonic didn't work so well in the 80s.

My Fair Lady – the musical. April 22, 2008.

Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles, California – Mezzanine (Seat L11, $65).

Book & lyrics – Alan Jay Lerner; Music – Frederick Loewe; Director – Trevor Nunn; Eliza Doolittle – Lisa O'Hare, Colonel Hugh Pickering – Walter Charles, Professor Henry Higgins – Christopher Cazenove, Alfred Doolittle – Tim Jerome, Mrs. Pearce – Barbara Marineau, Mrs. Higgins – Marni Nixon.

Story. Based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, this story is about how Prof. Higgins, on a bet with Colonel Pickering, tries to convert the flower girl Doolittle into a proper lady, and in the process falling in love with her.

A friend suggested we watch this show during my trip to Los Angeles, so the five of us (Alfred & Emily, David & Ruby, and myself) went to see it together. I was surprised at the price of the ticket (relatively inexpensive) and the size of the theater (must seat over 2000 people).

This was an okay show, but a bit disappointing given how well-known the story is. And the standard set by the movie where Audrey Hepburn played the role of Eliza with Julie Andrews doing the singing probably made it difficult for any subsequent productions to come close to matching it.

The sets were cleverly designed, although not as elaborate as one might expect, and the operations seemed smooth.

In most musicals I have seen, I have always been amazed at the clarity of the actors' diction, probably with the help of expertly designed sound systems. This was not the case. First “problem” is the British accent (affected and real), compounded by the cockney accent of the working class people. And I suspect the sound system could have been designed with better voice projection in mind. Fortunately the story is well known enough that a missed line here or there didn't get me that confused.

The only good singing was from Eliza, and the quality was adequate at best when she had to sustain high notes. Both Prof. Higgins and Colonel Pickering talked through much of the singing, and the parts they sang weren't that great either. Nonetheless, it was nice to hear familiar songs such as “I could have danced all night”, “The rain in Spain”, and “Get me to the church on time”. The two or three rowdy pieces were a bit too loud for my taste.

Both the maid and the mother provided some good comic relief. We aren't sure at the final scene whether Higgins and Doolittle have a romance going, which is okay. And one wonders why the colonel seems to be around so much ...

The show was a bit on the long side, first act was 90 minutes, a (relatively short) intermission of 15 minutes, and a 60 or so minute second act. I thought they could at least cut out the horse-racing scene to shorten the show. I was told (by an executive producer of a musical) the production costs about $9 million.

This musical is another proof that comedies (even with romance thrown in) don't work, not for me anyway. All in all, though, a was a good evening spent with good friends.

See the Los Angels Times “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” review of the show. And they say I am wishy-washy.

New York Philharmonic – Leonard Slatkin, conductor; Lang Lang, piano. April 12, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat G111, $59).


Piano Concerto by Tan Dun.

The Firebird (Complete, 1909-10) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

We didn't know what to expect with the concert. Tan Dun is known for two works: the soundtrack to the movie “Crouching Tigers and Hidden Dragons” and the opera “The First Emperor”. The former is a kung-fu movie, the latter is based on the story of Emperor Qin. I saw the movie, and caught glimpses of the opera (both on TV), and wasn't particularly impressed. However, we booked this concert because we were curious, and Lang Lang was going to be the soloist.

There was a “Hear and Now” session before the concert. This was the first such event we attended, so I didn't know what to expect. The concert hall (reasonably full) was darkened and a spot light was trained on the stage. Basically the soloist (XXX, principal percussionist of the orchestra) played with water using his hands and various implements. A bit novel, yet quite monotonous. I found out later this was a concerto written by Tan Dun about 10 years ago. Following that, Robert Stucky conducted an interview with Leonard Slatkin which was informative – but I have forgotten it after two weeks.

The concert began with a short video of an interview of Tan Dun, he talked about how he wanted to have this collaboration with Lang Lang, and that the concerto is based on the martial arts movements of pointing with fingers, flipping with fingers, chopping with an open hand, and pressing with the forearm. I am not knowledgeable about martial arts so am in no position to argue.

The concerto actually turned out to be quite exciting. It is in three movements: Lento, Adagio melancholia [attaca], and Allegretto. We were seated in the sixth row, so had a good view of the soloist and the orchestra (at least those in the front anyway). Since we were on the right side of the hall, we didn't get to see his fingers. Nonetheless, one could tell indeed these motions were used in the concerto. There is enough interplay and structure to the music to keep one's attention focused and interest going. Every now and then the repetition of notes reminds one of the pi-pa. To this listener, the concerto is well-knitted, showcases what it is supposed to (martial arts and artist), even there are intervals of wandering every now and then. A page turner was on stage to help with the music, and Lang Lang sometimes had to count, so the piece is not one easily committed to memory.

Neither Glenn Dicterow nor Sheryl Maples was playing tonight, so it fell to Michelle Kim to lead the orchestra. The principal violist Cynthia Phelps wasn't there either, and the lead had a broken foot that had to be propped up.

The program says the Firebird Suite was last played on February 19, 2005. I am sure I saw it quite recently, indeed my notes indicate we did so on September 16, 2006. Perhaps they were referring to the complete work? Although I thought we listened to the suite its entirety then. In any case, the program describes the Suite as follows: First Tableau: Kaschchei's Enchanted Garden; Appearance of the Firebird, pursued by Prince Ivan; Dance of the Firebird,;Capture of the Firebird by Prince Ivan, Supplications of the Firebird – Appearance of Thireteen Enchanted Princesses; The Princesses' Game with Golden Apples (Scherzo); Sudden Appearance of Prince Ivan; Khorovod (Round-Dance) of the Princesses; Daybreak – Prince Ivan Sneaks into Kaschchei's Palace; The Magical Carillon, Appearance of Kaschei's Guardian-Monsters and the Capture of Prince Ivan – Arrival of Kaschei the Immortal – Dialogue between Kaschei and Prince Ivan – Intercession of the Princesses – Appearance of the Firebird; Dance of Kaschei's Retinue, under the Firebird's Spell; Infernal Dance of All Kaschei's Subjects – Lullaby (The Firebird) – Kaschei's Awakening – The Death of Kaschei – Deep Shadows. Second Tableau: Disappearance of the Palace and of Kaschei's Sorcery, Bringing to Life of the Petrified Warriors, General Happiness.

As described above, the story of the Firebird is quite simple. The movements run on, I managed to get quite lost even with the descriptive titles. We know only a couple of tunes, despite the fact the work is well known.

I think this is the first time we saw Slatkin conduct. I can't comment on how he did with the Tan Dun piece, but am not particularly impressed with the Firebird, which was a bit flat (perhaps in comparison to the piano concerto?) In any case, I notice Lang Lang has never appeared with Lorin Maazel, the four or five times I have seen him were all with guest conductors. And he won't be appearing with Maazel next year either.

What I find amazing, though, was that the work of Stravinsky was tame in comparison to that of Tan Dun's. Perhaps music evolves after all. On the other hand, I am sure many contemporary work considered great by today's critics will fall by the wayside eventually. Stravinsky had his contemporaries, and most of them are forgotten today.

We have tickets to “The First Emperor” in May, I somewhat look forward to seeing it.

See the New York Times review.

Monday, April 07, 2008

New York City Opera – Verdi's Falstaff, April 5, 2008.

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center – Orchestra, Seat M107 ($96).

Conductor – George Manahan; Dr. Caius – Joel Sorensen, Sir John Falstaff – Jan Opalach, Bardolfo – Jeffrey Halili, Pistola – Eric Jordan, Meg Page – Heather Johnson, Alice Ford – Pamela Armstrong, Dame Quickly – Ursula Ferri – Nannetta, Anna Skibinsky, Fenton – John Tessier, Ford – Timothy Mix.

Story. Falstaff writes identical love letter to Meg Page and Alice Ford, and asks his friends Bardolfo and Pistola to deliver, which they refuse to do. The ladies realize what Falstaff is up to, and cook up a plan to humiliate him. Dame Quickly is sent to see Falstaff and invites him to meet Alice at her house. When Falstaff shows up, Mr. Ford shows up and Falstaff hides in the laundry and subsequently gets tossed into the Thames, to the amusement of all. Dame Quickly then invites Falstaff to the park which is known to be haunted. Children disguised as gremlins torment him when he shows up, until he promises to change his ways. Meanwhile, Nannetta and Fenton trick Mr. Ford into blessing their marriage. Dr. Caius, whom Ford favors, is instead paired up with Bardolfo! At the end, everyone agrees that “all the world's a jest.”

The opera was Verdi's last, written when he was 76 years old. Verdi wrote three operas based on Shakespeare's plays, and by happenstance we saw all of them this season (Macbeth and Otello are the other two).

I am not a great fan of comedy, but did find this opera quite amusing. Our tickets were 20% off list (although one can probably get them cheaper on the day of the show), and we got very good seats.

The sets are typical New York City Opera – simple, and functional. Anne is quite sure the sets had been used in other NYC operas, I don't remember that. When I was searching the web for information on this opera, I saw much more elaborate sets (e.g., by the Chicago Lyric Opera). The sets seem to affect the projection of the voices quite a bit though. In the relatively confined setting of a room in the inn, the voices projected very well, but in the more open garden setting, the singing was a bit weak.

The artists generally acquitted themselves well. We especially enjoyed Nannetta's singing. The acting was quite good also. Comedy is very dependent on timing (or so I hear), and the timing was generally good.

For us, a disappointment is there are not too many singable tunes in this opera. This is actually true of all three Shakespeare-play-based operas by Verdi. Macbeth and Otello, however, are captivating dramas in which one is easily engrossed. For a comedic opera, I would have enjoyed more singable tunes. The applauses during the acts were not that frequent as a result.

The famous line “he who laughs last, laughs best” concludes this comic opera. This is delivered as a complex fugue involving as many as eight soloists.

See the generally favorable New York Times review of this production.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Washington National Opera – Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, March 30, 2008.

Kennedy Center Opera House – Premium Orchestra, Seat Z118 ($190).

Conductor – Heinz Fricke; Daland – Gidon Saks, Steersman – Andreas Conrad, The Dutchman – Alan Held, Senta – Jennifer Wilson, Erik – Ian Storey.

Story. Daland meets up with the Dutchman and finds out he is rich and is looking for a wife. Daland invites the Dutchman home and offers his daughter Senta for marriage. The Dutchman is condemned by the devil to sail the seas forever; every seven years he gets to look for redemption by marrying someone who is faithful until death. Senta, meanwhile, is fascinated by the legend and believes she is the woman to save the Dutchman. When her boyfriend Erik finds out, he plead with Senta to marry him. This is taken as betrayal by the Dutchman, so he sets sail again. After unsuccessfully pleading her case, Senta jumps into the ocean after him. The spirits of Senta and the Dutchman are joined.

I have heard the opera a couple of times (on CD), and heard the overture once performed by the New York Philharmonic. So when I found out this was being performed in Washington DC when we were visiting, we bought tickets for the concert. David and Ruby joined us also. The tickets were a bit expensive at $190 each, though.

Placido Domingo is the General Director of the National Opera; he continues to be the general director at the Los Angeles Opera, and I am still puzzled why there isn't enough talent to go around that people have to take multiple appointments.

The concert hall is smaller than I expected, with a capacity of around 2,000. The seats were quite comfortable, with quite a bit of leg room. The performance was quite well attended, although there were visible stretches of empty seats. The audience tended to be a bit better dressed than the New York crowd. We were at the Kennedy Center the previous evening (attending part of a free Flamenco concert), and were worried at how well-dressed the crowd for the evening concerts were; luckily the afternoon crowd wasn't that fastidious.

The sets were not very elaborate. Somewhat on par with NYC Opera – wait, the program notes actually say “Production from New York City Opera.” The ocean is represented by a projection of icebergs in the background. The tilted “squares” were used for multiple purposes (tilted ships, rooms). The moving boats were these riggings you see on these old sailing ships, the one of the Dutchman being in red. I was wondering what the final scene would look like, and was disappointed it was simply images of two seagulls.

The performance was okay. To me the overture has to have elements of ocean waves in it; by this measure the orchestra didn't quite meet my expectations. The voices were all quite strong. The acting was a bit contrived and disjoint, though. I didn't expect to see all these ghosts (scantily dressed women, were they former lovers of the Dutchman?); a bit eerie when they first appeared, but then they became superfluous. The conductor Fricke is surprising short, and Senta is a bit on the heavy side. (Not germane to the review, but obvious observations nonetheless.)

Seeing these other operas make one more appreciative of what the Met manages to do day-in and day-out for a busy season. To be fair, the performance was captivating enough that the entire opera went by quite quickly (no intermissions at that). See the Washington Post review of an earlier performance.

New York Philharmonic – Kurt Mazur, conductor. March 22, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat P7, $59).


The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to the Evangelist Matthew, BWV 244 (ca. 1724-42) by J.S Bach (1750)

Matthia Goerne, baritone, as Jesus; James Taylor, tenor, as the Evangelist; Christiane Libor, soprano; Anna Larsson, alto; Dietmar Kerschbaum, tenor; Jason Grant, bass-baritone, as Judas, Peter, and High Priest II; Westminster Choir, Joe Miller, director; The American Boychoir, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, director.

We did not book this concert when we did our subscription, oratorios not being something I particularly enjoy. We switched to this concert because we couldn't make the one originally planned.

We got to NYC early, so we bought ticket sto the pre-concert talk. The session sold out soon after we got ours; a first for us. I forget the name of the speaker ... It was actually a rather informative talk where we learned how Bach used different solo voices to interject meditations into the narrative, that James Taylor is well-known for singing the role of the Evangelist, how the accompaniments are different for the Evangelist and Jesus (dry vs accompanied recitatives, e.g.), and the different forms. Also, the work contained the worship elements of memory (scripture), understanding (aria), and will (chorale). And the chorales were well-known to the audience of the time; the famous one "O Sacred Head now Wounded" actually appeared several times. I was shocked to learn that the oratorio would last three hours (it was close to that). The speaker oversold it a bit though, saying the impact on the listener would be enormous; it was good, but not quite up to the expectations he set.

Kurt Mazur was the conductor of the Philharmonic before being replaced by Lorin Maazel. I was surprised to learn he is 81 years old. And the last time the orchestra played this piece was about 10 years ago, he was also the conductor. For an 81-year old person, he certainly managed to summon the requisite energy for the occasion, impressively, I might add. I am quite sure he is suffering from Parkinson's disease as his hands (left one especially) kept shaking when at rest. There is this inevitable tinge of sadness when you see how time catches up with everyone.

The Evangelist (Matthew) role is well performed by Taylor. The range is quite impressive, and all (as far as I could tell) recitatives. The other soloists were good also; Goerne did all his parts without referring to the music. He also didn't wear any neckwear. I wonder why.

The choirs were good also. They have several people who sang some short solo passages (witnesses, e.g.); they did well.

One final interesting aspect. The original orchestra was divided into two separate orchestras, seated on opposite parts of the stage. I am not sure I understand why it was necessary.

All in all, a good concert. See also the New York Times review.