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.