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.