Wednesday, January 30, 2008

London Philharmonic Orchestra – Roberto Minczuk, conductor; John Lil, piano. January 19, 2008.

Royal Festival Hall at Southbank Centre, London. Seat Balcony D11 (GP 21)


Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1

Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2

This concert hall was built soon after WWII and was refurbished recently. It is the home to both the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra. For all its years of existence, and the many trips we have made to London, this was the first time we went inside. The concert hall is pretty big, the stage is tiered so the audience has a good view of the performers. The acoustics are quite good also, perhaps it was the refurbishment? The seats are also quite comfortable.

Today's pieces are staple fare for the orchestra. I say that afterward as I wasn't sure how Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony would sound like. The Adagio movement is a very melodic one and many people are familiar with it.

Beethoven's first piano concerto sounds very Mozartian to me. Especially the last movement. I say that in no small part due to the many repeated notes in the melody, especially the last movement. To that end I find the performance a bit disappointing. There was simply too much use of the pedal which muddies up the music quite a bit. The balance between the soloist and the orchestra is quite good though; I never thought one part drowned out the other.

The Rachmaninoff was quite enjoyable, rousing at times. In general the precision is a bit lacking. The audience was quite enthusiastic in its reception.

Again, without a program (we were a bit late so didn't even look for them), I know little about the conductor, orchestra, or the soloist.

Belmont Ensemble of London – Peter G. Dyson, conductor. January 18, 2008.

Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London. Seat N9 (GP 18).


Mozart – Eine kleine Nachtmusik

Vivaldi – Spring from Four Seasons

Pachelbel – Canon

Mozart – Salzburg Symphony No. 3

Handel – Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

Vivaldi - Sinfonia 'Alla Rustica'

Purcell – 'Abdelazer' Suuite

Purcell - Chaconne

This is a very interesting church. It has been around for a very long time, and is well known for an orchestra (Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields). After several visits to London, I found out it also has a strong social program for the homeless (helps 6000 or so a year), and it holds both a Mandarin and a Cantonese service every week.

Today's program consisted of 10 pieces, some very short. A program would cost GP1.50. Again as a matter of principle I didn't buy one. The lighting was dim, so I couldn't quite make out the copy of the person sitting in front of me. I know some of the pieces (like Vivaldi's Four Seasons) but by-and-large was a bit lost. I continue to think the artists should protest this practice as many would not know who they are.

In any case, this was a so-so performance. There are about 10 plays plus a conductor. Some pieces called for a quartet, and the conductor would stay on. I am not sure that is necessary.

The soloist who was on the program couldn't play today, so a substitute was playing the Spring Season. She did okay, given the short notice, but not better than okay.

The church's acoustics are quite good. A bit too much resonance, though. Unfortunately the players were seated on the same level as the main sanctuary, so I didn't have a good view of them at all.

Monday, January 14, 2008

New York City Ballet – Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, January 13. 2008.

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center – Orchestra, Seat Q103 ($86).

Conductor – Faycal Karoui; Juliet – Erica Pereira, Romeo – Allen Peiffer, Mercutio – Adam Hendrickson, Benvolio – Antonio Carmena, Tybalt – Giovanni Villalobos, Nurse – Gwyneth Muller, Lady Capulet – Darci Kistler, Lord Capulet – Jock Soto, Paris – Christian Tworzyanski.

Story: The Montagues and Capulets are involved in a feud with people on both sides killed in fights. Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, however, fall in love and are secretly married. After Romeo is exiled for killing Tybalt, Juliet's parents try to force her to marry Paris. Juliet drinks a sleeping potion given to her by her priest which makes her appear to be dead. Romeo, not having gotten the priest's message, thinks Juliet is dead and visits her tomb. He finds Paris there, kills him, and drinks a vial of (real) poison and dies. Juliet awakes and stabs herself, dying by Romeo's side.

Ballet is an art form I still yet to have to learn to enjoy. Prior to this, I had seen a couple of performances of The Nutcracker at Christmas time. At Anne's “urging”, we went to this “can't miss” one. Prokofiev's R&J is considered the heir apparent to Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. I am familiar with only a couple of the numbers, vaguely at that. The conductor did his job with great energy.

The performance was quite enjoyable. A couple of the scenes were actually moving. I don't know if it was the dancers, the music, or the fact that the story was well known, so one could guess what is happening even without a “blow-by-blow” account of the choreography – and the program notes did a good job of that. The staging was a bit disappointing, although there was clever use of curtains and moving parts.

The dancers all seem quite young. Anne heard while waiting in line for the ladies' room that this is the “trademark” of the chief choreographer (Martins). I couldn't even find Erica Periera (Juliet) listed under the principal dancers section. There is no reference to the conductor anywhere I could find either (which brings to my mind the question: how much is the conductor of a ballet involved with the actual stage acting and choreography?). Periera is quite young looking; and her small size probably made Romeo's job easier, although you could still see quite a bit of sweat on his forehead. There wasn't any of this precision group movement associated with group ballet, and I don't know enough to appreciate the techniques or levels of difficulties involved.

While some of the dances were elegant, I can't help but wonder if the performance would be equally gripping if the dancers actually just mimed the play. This is more a remark about my lack of appreciation of ballet as an art form than the art form itself. The nurse actually had real shoes with heels on. Her character is quite comical and enjoyable. The young mandolin dancers provided additional comic relief, and I am sure one of them tripped (but recovered). They didn't share in the curtain call, though.

The ballet is quite long at a bit over 2 hours, with a rather short 15 or so minute intermission. I had thought, what with all the running around, that the dancers would have needed more rest. It was also amazing how soft the dancers landings sounded. These must be great athletes.

Our seats were quite close to the stage and had a good view of it, but we couldn't see much of the orchestra in the pit. Also, if a tall person sits in front of you (as in this case), then you get only a partial view that can be remedied sometimes with moving your head from side to side.

I am not sure I will start scouring the calendars to see what other ballets are on, but won't mind seeing another one if it is interesting enough.

Lately we have quite a bit of Prokofiev (War & Peace and this ballet) and Shakespeare (Macbeth and this ballet). More happenstance than planning, we enjoyed them, though.

The New York Times review of the ballet is quite brutal. It also laments the frequent change of dancers for this season's performances.

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi's Macbeth, January 12, 2008.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Grand Tier, Seat Box 30-4 ($115).

Conductor – James Levine; Macbeth – Ziljko Lucic; Banquo – John Relyea; Lady Macbeth – Maria Guleghina; Macduff – Dimitri Pittas.

Story: Macbeth and Banquo are told by a group of witches that Macbeth is going to become first the Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland, and that Banquo's descendants will be the father of kings. After Macbeth is made Thane, he, at his wife's urging, assassinates King Duncan and assumes the throne. To prevent Banquo's children from taking over, Macbeth tries to have Banquo and his son Fleance killed; Banquo is killed, but his son escapes. Macbeth visits the witches again and is told “no man of woman born” can harm him and he will be invincible until Birnam Wood marches on his castle. Meanwhile, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are haunted by their deeds, and Lay Macbeth eventually dies. Macduff, who has fled Scotland because of his disgust with what happened in Scotland, comes back with English soldiers camouflaged with branches from Birnam Wood, and tells Macbeth that he had a Caesarean birth before killing Macbeth and installing as King Malcolm, son of Duncan.

Shakespeare's Macbeth is based loosely on the historical Mac Bethad mac Findlaich, king of Alba from 1040 to 1058. I had not read nor seen the play, but the story as told in the opera was quite easy to follow. Macbeth's role was supposed to be sung by Lado Ataneli, the “substitute” Lucic is also singing the role in this season's production, not an understudy.

Our seats had only a partial view (left side) of the stage, and I had to stand to get a reasonably good view. The subtitle panel is on the left (away from the stage); it was much easier to read Anne's panel. The seat really should be charged as an SRO seat. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the opera tremendously with only a few minor quibbles.

I had seen Levine conduct a few times before (a couple of Mozart operas and Donizetti's Lucia), and was not all that impressed despite his reputation. We had a good view of the pit (and least the left side) and I could see the lines in the score with binoculars. Levine conducted with great energy and excitement today; he did have to sit on a high chair though.

The program notes says “The score of Macbeth features very little of the melodic abundance that made Verdi famous.” That was probably true. However, the drama is so gripping that everything seemed to fit together very well. On the one hand, I don't think there is one single aria that is “hummable”; on the other hand, having just seen Prokofiev's War and Peace a couple of weeks ago, I suspect most operas would have sounded quite melodic to us. I always have trouble when staging is “freshened up” (in this case to post-WWII Scotland.) So we now have guns and a Jeep rather than bows and arrows and whatever transportation they used in the 1000's. The killings were still done with knives and swords, though. Also, the opera ends with people singing praises to the triumphant return of Malcolm. I don't know how the play ends, but a more dramatic end could have been when Macbeth is killed. I also thought the “crystal ball” showing the apparitions was a bit amateurish; Banquo's ghost roaming the grounds is more effective, and reminds one of the young lady in Lucia.

The singers all did a great job. Lady Macbeth's role is particularly difficult; she had to start Act 1/Scene 2 without accompaniment, I was worried (needlessly) of course, that she would miss her pitch. However, she did seem to have trouble reaching the high note (D flat) in the sleep walking scene; and it wasn't done with the “thread of voice” called for by Verdi. Actually, she shouted most of the time. Nonetheless, her depiction of Lady Macbeth was evil enough. Also, the actors had to do a lot of falling down, which they managed without hurting themselves.

The performance we saw was broadcast live on WQXR. The commentators kept referring to the play as “The Scottish Play”, saying it is considered bad luck to name the play by name. I wonder why.

Anne forgot to turn off her cell phone. And sure enough it rang, and caused great commotion, when Ellie tried to call. The upshot of that was we were quite embarrassed, but had home-cooked Lasagna for dinner at Ellie's place that evening.

I am going to London later this week and may visit Stratford-upon-Avon. Too bad they don't have a production of Macbeth, it would have been interesting to see how the play compares with the opera.

See the New York Times review. It is quite informative on the production and has a good analysis of the Met performance.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Metropolitan Opera – Prokofiev's War and Peace, December 28, 2007.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Grand Tier Rear, Seat G25 ($140).

Conductor – Gianandrea Noseda; Andrei – Vasili Ladyuk, Natasha – Irina Mataeva, Sonya – Elkterina Semenchuk, Pierre – Alexei Steblianko, Anatol – Vladimir Grishko, Helene – Ekaterina Gubanova, Dolokhov – Alexander Morozov, and many others.

Story: Andrei falls in love with Natasha and they are eventually engaged to be married. However, Andrei's father does not like Natasha, so he sends his son away. Natasha eventually meets Anatol who gives her a love letter written by Dolokhov. Natasha and Anatol plan to elope but are thwarted. Natasha then overhears Andrei's good friend Pierre saying Anatol is already married. Pierre, who is married to Anatol's sister Helene, is also in love with Natasha. Natasha tries to commit suicide, but is unsuccesful. Meanwhile, Napoleon is preparing to invade Russia, and the Russians are defiant. The war begins and the Russians flee Moscow to protect other parts of the country, torching the city as they do so. Pierre is caught with others for arson and narrowly escapes execution. Andrei also fights in the war, is wounded, and is cared for by Natasha, to whom he declares his love again before he dies. Pierre is freed by Russian soldiers, and learns Andrei has died, and that Natasha is still alive. Meanwhile the Russians repel the French and the opera concludes with a victory celebration.

Tolstoy's War and Peace is 1500 pages long, and the story in the opera (more coherent than the synopsis I put together) focuses on the lives of Natasha, those that love her, and the unsuccessful invasion of Russia by the French. Prokofiev's work was censored by the government, so I suspect it is much more sympathetic to the Russians than the book is. Indeed all the back-and-forth on what is acceptable delayed the final work so much that Prokofiev didn't live to see the opera performed in its final form.

To say this is a Met performance is a bit of a stretch. While Noseda is on the Met's roster, this is the only opera he is conducting for them. Most of the soloists are from Russian (predominantly Mariinsky Theater, which the program acknowledges as a co-producer). The advertisements probably oversell the opera a bit, saying it has 60 plus solo roles, for instance. Perhaps there are that many, and the list in the program is very long. However, many of the soloists have one or two lines, and (thankfully) only fifteen or so of them were there for the stage call.

Prokofiev managed the 4 hour 30 minute (with only one intermission) opera without one “singable” tune, quite a feat. Despite that, the drama is compelling enough that it didn't feel long at all. (Similar experience with the Cantonese opera we saw recently.) I suspect, as with my experience with other Prokofiev pieces, the music will grow on you – but who is willing to sit through multiple productions of this opera, and it isn't easy to find one performed in your area! They certainly used a lot of singers, actors, dancers, and extras. Many scenes called for crowds, some of them running. There was this scene describing the wounded and oppressed where a poor guy was carried strung up on a pole. The by-and-large spartan staging is a bit disappointing. Most of the scene changes (13 scenes and a choral epigraph, in the two acts) were done with the aid of a rotating platform and props dropped from the ceiling. I find the one where Napoleon was standing above a pile of dead bodies (mannequins, no doubt) particularly macabre, perhaps that was the idea. I find the staging in Magic Flute much more impressive. Then again, the Magic Flute performance I saw in November was the 385th production, and this was the 17th.

Just a few remarks on the performance. Valery Gergiev is the conductor most associated with the “revival” of this opera and conducted some performances, I wonder what it would be like to see him. Noseda conducted with great energy, though. The New York Times reviewer talks glowingly of the soprano in Natasha's role, however she didn't sing in the performance we saw: in that case, I thought Sonya (mezzo soprano) did better.

It is quite unlikely I will see this opera again. But I am glad I saw it.

See also the New York Times review. The headline says “52 soloists and 1 horse,” and the text says there are 68 roles. I disagree with the assessment that “the opera was conceived as a series of telling scenes for an audience who knew the novel thoroughly.” I had no trouble following the story; granted, the episodes may be more compelling in the context of the entire novel. It was an informative review, but a bit short on critique and assessment. According to the reviewer, the rotating set is a bit dangerous and people and props have been known to fall off (into a safety net).