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.

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