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.