Thursday, December 10, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; David Fray, piano. December 4, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat BB13, $59).

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, BB114 (1936) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31) by Ravel (1876-1937).
La Mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques (The Sea: Three Symphonic Sketches) (1903-05; rev. 1910) by Debussy (1862-1918).

I usually enjoy Bartok’s music, so I was looking at today’s performance with some anticipation. The Program Notes talks about Bartok’s meticulous instructions on how the orchestra should be organized, and that there are to be two separate string sections; this only adds to the intrigue. Indeed Dicterow and Maples are seated on opposite ends of the stage. I am sure there are more string players than usual (although I didn’t do a count.)

This is a piece written for strings, percussion, and celesta. There is also a piano on board. Given the relative sizes of the instruments, and the frequency at which the piano came in, I am surprised it didn’t get equal billing.

The music is in four movements, basically slow-fast-slow-fast. [Andante tranquillo; Allegro; Adagio; Allegro molto.] The slow sections sounded very flat, the fast sections were much more exciting. Not too many melodies (even for Bartok) to speak of. There were several passages that had considerable flourish, but didn’t quite make up for the overall lack of excitement.

We had a chance to hear Ravel’s Concerto several months ago, played by Uchida with Muti conducting. But we were caught in traffic in Jersey City and missed the first part of the concert. Given how recently we heard the Debussy piece (later in the program), there is this distinct feeling that the New York Philharmonic is recycling its program at an alarming pace. Say it ain’t so.

Anyway, David Fray is a young French pianist (not quite 30 years old) that somehow got to be a rather hot commodity. The Program Notes didn’t talk about any major competitions that he won, or he had a breakthrough performance as a last minute substitute. So it is a bit surprising how he got to be part of the subscription series. Interestingly, he used a “regular” chair with a back, rather than one of these leather-clad piano benches. Too young to have a weak back, and his arms don’t look that long that he can do the whole keyboard sitting in place.

The first movement (Allegramente) starts with the piano accompanying the orchestra by a lot of glissandos, which is quite pleasing to the ear. Nonetheless, it didn’t generate the excitement one would get from (say) Lang Lang playing a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto. Interestingly, the Basque theme at the beginning of the movement sounded very oriental to me. The second movement (Adagio assai) has the English Horn playing a rather long duet with the soloist. And there are a lot of hand crossovers that make both for an interesting sight and an interesting sound. The third movement (Presto) is again fast, and Fray manages to play the entire chromatic range without leaving his chair.

Ravel himself was a pianist, and he wanted to retract his dedication of the piece to Marguerite Long so he could do the premiere himself. At the end, Long performed the premiere because of Ravel’s health and scheduling issues (not enough time to practice his own composition, evidently.) The Program Notes also say Ravel started Conservatory as a piano student but was asked to withdraw because he wasn’t deemed to have enough panache to be an outstanding concert pianist. I am being harsh here, but these words seem to describe David Fray quite well. His technique and sound seem very good, but somehow one doesn’t get much spirit from the performance.

By some account Lar Mer is one of Debussy’s two best know orchestral compositions. The other one is The Fawn Afternoon which we heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra play last week in Symphony Hall. I heard La Mer at New York Philharmonic not too long ago, and had to admit that I couldn’t quite make heads or tails from it. Today it was much better though. Although I don’t think the composition evokes the sea as much as Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (the overture is still one of the best seascapes I have heard), one can definitely tell how the music is painting the pictures.

The three sketches are: From Dawn till Noon on the Sea; Play of the Waves; and Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea.

When I lived in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, Salonen was the conductor of Los Angeles Symphony, so I am sure I heard him conduct several times, although I don’t remember any particular concert. We had a chance to hear him a couple of years ago but he had to withdraw because of health reasons. Today’s performance was overall a bit flat for me. The applause from the audience, enthusiastic at times, wasn’t sustained.

It was basically a simple trip for us to make via New Jersey Transit. Today still turns out to be a full day as we had to catch a 6:15 pm flight to San Francisco. I am actually en-route as I type (most of) this review.

The New York Times reviewer loved the conductor and the solosist. Actually it is one of the least negative reviews (not quite the same as the most positive) I have read in that paper.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Metropolitan Opera – Puccini’s Il Trittico. December 1, 2009.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Grand Tier Seat G13 ($102.50).

Story – Il Tabarro. Setting: Paris 1927. After their son dies, Giorgetta grows apart from her husband Michele and has an affair with Luigi. When Luigi rushes to the barge, mistakenly thinking it is a signal from Giorgetta, Michele kills him. When Giorgetta comes on deck of the barge, Michele reveals the dead body to her.
Story – Suor Angelica. Setting: Tuscany 1938. Angelica is banished by her family to a convent after she gave birth to an illegitimate child. After seven years, her aunt comes to visit to settle the estate of Angelica’s parents. She also tells Angelica that her son died two years ago. Angelica, overcome with grief, commits suicide. After she ingests the poison, she prays that her mortal sin be forgiven. Her child welcomes her to heaven.
Story – Gianni Schicchi. Setting: Florence 1959. The wealthy Buoso Donati dies and his relatives retains Schicchi to try to get at the inheritance. Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta is in love with Rinuccio, one of the relatives. Schicchi pretends to be the dead man and has the will rewritten, in the process also benefitting himself.

Conductor – Stefano Ranzani.
Cast Il Tabarro: Giorgetta – Patricia Racette, Michele – Reljko Lucic, Luigi – Aleksandrs Antonenko.
Cast Suor Angelica: Angelica – Patricia Racette, The Princess – Stephanie Blythe.
Cast Gianni Schicchi: Zita – Stephanie Blythe, Rinuccio – Saimir Pirgu, Gianni Schicchi – Alessandro Corbelli, Lauretta – Patricia Racette.

It took me a while to realize that Il Trittico has something to do with the number “three”. Indeed tonight’s performance comprises of three one-hour one-act operas with half-hour intermissions in between.

Patricia Racette, whom we see for the first time, sings in all three operas. This, per the Program Notes, isn’t done all that often. That may explain why the intermissions are that long as she probably needs the time to rest her voice. Not being a singer, I don’t know how difficult the singing roles are. Certainly she does a lot of it during Suor Angelica. Her role in Gianni Schicchi is quite limited, though, even though she has one of the most famous arias in opera: the short “O mio babbino caro.” I am sure Isolde’s role is much more demanding. Nonetheless, she manages to fill the roles well.

Stephanie Blythe, a mezzo-soprano, whom we have seen quite a few times (recently in Rusalka and the Ring cycle), did an excellent job. She has a great voice but is usually limited to secondary roles, undoubtedly due to her voice range and her weight. One wonders how far she could go if she shed some weight.

Somehow all the women singers are American-born while the men singers, and the conductor, are Europeans, many from Eastern Europe. I wonder whether that reflects on the state of American Opera talent.

The sets are all quite impressive. With Il Tabarro it is a large barge on the River Seine; the setting for Suor Angelica is the courtyard of a convent; for Gianni Schicchi it is the bedroom of Buoso Donati. From where we were sitting, they looked extremely well-done with great details. I find how the crest on the wall of the convent very interesting: it morphs from a painting to a three-dimensional statue. Towards the end of Gianni Schicchi, the entire bedroom drops to reveal a garden overlooking Florence. While it is quite impressive, one wonders if it is too much for the last several minutes of the program.

The Program Notes says that many consider Suor Angelica the weakest of the three operas. The story, however, is most compelling. Gianni Schicchi is a comedy, and is one of the few that works for me. Even though we know how the story is going to end, the acting still makes it funny to watch. Despite the Program Notes claim that the three operas together will give the audience a unique experience, I am not sure how.

Puccini died in 1924, and all these operas have settings that are dated after his death. I wonder why; and the Program Notes doesn’t seem to mention it. Out of the three hours of performance, there is only one aria that is easily singable, which is a pity in my opinion. There are some very atonal passages that I wonder if the singers are at the correct pitch. The applause during and after the show is surprising reserved; the fact that the show concluded close to midnight definitedly contributed. Also, there were quite a few empty seats. Perhaps weekdays crowds are different?

We were a little worried about driving into the city during the holiday period. The traffic reports were not encouraging. We left a little after 5 (for an 8 pm start), taking the Holland Tunnel. It wasn’t too bad, and the trip home was quick – we got home at 12:45 am.

The New York Times review is quite favorable. The reviewer also thinks Racette resonates well with Angelica.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Boston Symphony - Yan Pascal Tortelia, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. November 28, 2009.

Symphony Hall, Second Balcony Center (Seat E32, $57.50).

Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun (1894) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918).
Ballet Suite from The Firebird (1945 version) by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Violin Concerto in D, Opus 77 (1878-1879) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

[Note: I am jotting down my thoughts on the concert now, and will add in more information about the program later. Done 12/3/2009.]

Anne & I were made aware of this concerto by Joe who attended it on Tuesday together with Jessica and her family. Turns out we didn't have much to do during this Thanksgiving trip anyway, and there were still some tickets that were reasonably priced.

This is the first "real" concert we attended at Symphony Hall (I recall seeing the Boston Pops and the Von Trapp Singers). The main floor was configured in a traditional way (rows of seats). Although the auditorium looked small, I estimated it could still hold close to 3000 people, and attendance tonight was very good.

We were able to find street parking with enough time left on the meter until 8 pm (beginning of concert). Be thankful of small things: in this case it saved us considerable time looking for parking and $12.

The conductor was a last minute stand-in for Sir Andrew Davis (who apparently isn't related to the other famous British conductor Sir Colin Davis). I had never heard of him. He must be over 60 and conducted quite energetically, without a baton. He didn't need the music for the Debussy and Stravinsky pieces, but needed it for the Brahms. A bit odd considering he is a violinist himself.

The Debussy piece was quite pleasant despite the tentative beginning by the flutist (Elizabeth Rowe). I don't know how to judge a piece like this except it felt soothing. Debussy is in general easy to like, and this is one of his more well-known pieces.

I am still not very familiar with The Firebird Suite. The last time I heard it was in April 2008 with Leonard Slatkin conducting the New York Philharmonic. The version played today supposedly had two movements that were cut out in other versions. In any case, there were twenty or so minutes of rather quiet music followed by a sudden awakening with ensuing (enjoyable) chaos for fifteen or so minutes. Quite a few fell into the trap of thinking the piece ended after the first flourish, only to be embarrassed when they found out others were not applauding. The conductor seemed extremely energetic despite his age, and in general I thought the orchestra responded very well.

The concertmaster didn't show up after the intermission as the orchestra prepared for the Brahms Violin Concerto; the assistant principal sat in "his" chair instead. This is similar to the practice we observe regularly with the New York Philharmonic. Right now my guess is it's done in deference to the soloist, even though I can't imagine why that would be the case.

We heard Joshua Bell about six months ago in New York playing Saint-Saen's Third Violin Concerto; and the Brahms Violin Concerto played by Frank Zimmerman a couple of months ago. I also enjoyed this performance. The Cadenza was written by Bell himself, and it is a showcase of his virtuosity (what else would it be) with a proliferation of harmonics and left-hand pizzicatos. Although I find nothing wrong with the usual Candenza (by Joachim?). The violin sounded weak during the last movement, though. I assume it is a Strad.

After several curtain calls, Bell joked he wasn't going to do Bach. Instead he played a piece based on "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Perhaps appropriate for Boston (at least the Boston of 200 years ago). In any case, reminds me of Zimmerman playing variations on "My Country Tis of Thee." While he seemed to have fun with it, the piece actually is a very difficult technical exercise.

The Firebird Suite (1945 version) consists of (i) Introduction, (ii) Prelude and Dance of the Firebird, (iii) Variations (Firebird); (iv) Pantomime I; (v) Pas de deux: Firebird and Ivan Tsarevich; (vi) Pantomime II; (vii) Scherzo: Dance of the Princesses; (viii) Pantomime III; (ix) Rondo (Khorovod); (x) Infernal Dance; (xi) Lullaby (Firebird); and (xii) Final Hymn. Indeed the "movements" listed here are different from the one I heard before. The three movements of the Violin Concerto are Allegro non troppo, Adagio, and Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace.

Before I went to the concert, Jessica said she had read a review at that had two points: Tortelia didn't work well as the conductor, and the reviewer liked Bell's Cadenza. My immediate reaction was that it was a lazy review given what I knew. Of course one would expect some miscues, especially if the conductor is the "leading the beat" type (and turns out Tortelia is), and the Cadenza being unusal would make it easy to make intelligent remarks about it. Also, an orchestra like the BSO can do quite well without a conductor, and it certainly would not suffer much because of unfamiliarlity with the guest. I think that assessment is by-and-large correct. It was a light-weight review.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

New York Philharmonic - Alan Gilbert, conductor; Emmanuel Ax, piano. October 3, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat CC9, $61).

EXPO (2009) by Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958).
Symphony No. 2 (ca. 1900-02?; rev. ca. 1907-10) by Ives (1874-1954).
The Unanswered Question (1906 - ca. 1941) by Ives.
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

We went to this concert with Chung Shu and Shirley. Ate at Josephina's at Lincoln Square, reasonably good food (I had the scallops) but a bit slow; we had only time for the main course.

The piece by Lindberg was commissioned by New York Philharmonic. The piece is about 9 minutes long, and the program notes took longer than that to read. Lindberg is a Finnish composer, a contemporary of Esa-Pekka Salonen, and can trace his academic lineage to Sibelius. Supposedly he went through a phase of writing very complex music but now is back to "simpler" music. Gilbert and he had a 10- or so minute dialog at the beginning demonstrating what harmony and melody meant in the Lindberg context. Frankly it was a bit uninteresting despite being different from the first two concerts as Gilbert didn't want to rest on his laurels. I suspect he hasn't quite found his groove in this opening dialog business yet. In any case, the piece didn't sound too complicated, nor was it memorable. There were - as advertised - many tempo changes.

I don't recall having heard any of Charles Ives' work before. And I suspect in short order I will forget that I have ever heard him either. I guess he was an "all-American" composer, went to Yale, was a successful insurance agent, and had so much reservations about his own work in that he would eventually break his promise about going to the premiere performance of his Second Symphony even though it was played by the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein conducting in Carnegie Hall. It also explains why the dates of his composition are so uncertain since he often put his work-in-progress aside for a long time.

The Symphony has five tempo markings: Andante moderato; Allegro; Adagio cantabile; Lento (maestoso); and Allegro molto vivace. However, I could sense only two distinct breaks in the 35 minute work. The first movement started melodically and gently, but spent most of the next 20 or so minutes drifting. During the last 15 or so seconds the music came to life, but it wasn't enough to salvage the performance to that point. Uncharacteristically the audience applauded: not your oops I goofed type applause but a rather sustained one. The second section was a bit more interesting. The third section contains a lot of borrowed tunes. Chung Shu said it sounded very Americana, I just found it pedestrian. The program notes claim that Ives didn't think much of his contemporaries, describing Stravinsky's The Firebird as "morbid and monotonous," and Ravel's music as "of a kind I cannot stand: weak, morbid, and monotonous; pleasing enough, if you want to be pleased." I am sure I am not the first one to remark many probably find Ives' work also "pleasing enough, if you want to be pleased."

We were a bit puzzled after the intermission. The piano was already set up, the full orchestra was there despite The Unanswered Question has a score that calls for four flutes, a trumpet, and strings. And to add to the confusion, Emmanuel Ax came out at the outset!

Anyway, what they did was play the Ives piece immediately followed by the Beethoven piece, with bridging done with a short downward scale. The Question was short at about 6 minutes and somewhat interesting. I am not sure what the question was, perhaps the meaning of life? I didn't notice that the trumpet and flutes were in the balcony - Anne noticed it.

There are a few things about Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 that's worth recording. It began with several cords played by the piano, followed by the orchestra's response in B major, which was ahead of its time. Some think the concerto follows the story line of an Orpheus legend, with the second movement describing Orpheus's using music to tame wild beasts.

Ax's performance tonight was flawless. He put together an architectural masterpiece, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. The runs were spotless, the melodies were well executed, the cooperation was the orchestra was seamless, the harmonies were exquisite. I admired how he played last time I heard him (even with a few mistakes), that admiration grew even more today. I do think the cadenzas (by Beethoven) were a bit on the long side, though.

Gilbert is still a bit of an unknown to me after these two concerts. The selection of Lindberg and Ives was a bit too eclectic for me. The Beethoven concerto began well enough, but the orchestra got a bit sloppy towards the end. And I really think if they want to teach the audience how to listen, do that in the program instead of during the concert.

It was an enjoyable concert on the strength of the Beethoven piece. The New York Times reviewer continues to adore Gilbert.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Brentano Quartet. October 1, 2009.

Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University. Balcony, Row 1, Center Left.

Mark Steinberg, violin; Serena Canin, violin; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Maria Lee, cello.

String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3 by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).
String Quartet in G major, D. 887 by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

This was again David's suggestion. Anne had a class on ESL teaching, so I went by myself. The group was David, Vivien, Peter, Melinda, Jim, and myself.

Tonight's attendance was not good at all. The balcony was only half full. We heard the same group at the same location on Oct 18, 2005, and the auditorium was full. So both concerts happened during the school year, I wonder why.

I remarked in the blog for the earlier concert that I wasn't a fan of the quartet. So I consciously tried to listen to the viola every now and then. It is a tiring endeavor: you need to concentrate, and you lose track of the other voices. Let's hope this improves with additional attempts.

Overall I enjoyed the concert. Perhaps it was my active listening, I found the balance between the instruments to be much better than I expected. Not that the first violin wasn't the domineering voice, it was just less so. And every now and then another voice (for tonight it was mostly the cello) would break out into the lead.

The Haydn quartet was written quite early in Haydn's career (Op. 20, when he was about 40 years old). The four movements are: Allegro con spirito; Menuet: Allegretto; Poco adagio; and Finale: Allegro di molto. The note on the piece (written by the violist Misha Amory). This was a relatively short quartet at about 30 minutes. David remarked that it was because they didn't do the repeats. I am not sure whether they did them or not. (They did they in 2005, according to the complaint in my blog.)

The Schubert quartet was a brilliant piece, requiring a lot technically from the players. On top of that they needed to appear as one harmonic group. I thought they did quite well in that regard, Peter thought the cello was hoarding the stage. However, there was confusion every now and then, and I am quite sure the first violin missed his notes and misbowed on a few occasions. I don't have much quarrel with the performance, though.

Mark Steinberg wrote the note on this piece, and (like the last one) it was quite long. He used Schubert writing ("My Dream") to illustrate the composition. What isn't clear to me was whether Schubert was referring to this particular quartet, or Steinberg was trying to fit the quartet into that sort of thinking. In any case, the thesis is that "love" and "pain" are not exclusive. Per Steinberg, there are many "issues" with the music that Schubert decided not to resolve, but instead the music just continued to go on. In that sense it illustrates life: settle, and move on. Interesting, even though it might be made up.

The four movements of this quartet are: Allegro molto moderato; Andante un poco mosso; Scherzo: Allegro vivace; and Allegro assai. The Scherzo and Trio were particularly interesting in the contrast between the two: the scherzo has the usual chaos while the trio is very calm.

This program was put out by the Department of Music of Princeton University.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, Conductor; Frank Peter Zimmerman, violin. September 26, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat DD9, $58).

Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra (1878-79), Op. 77 by Brahms (1833-97).
Pelleas und Melisande (After the Drama by Maurice Maeterlinck): Symphonic Poem for Orchestra, Op. 5 (1902-03) by Schoenberg (1874-1951).

This is Alan Gilbert's first season. And this was one of the earlier concerts. I have not paid attention to what the critics think of him so far, and will search for a review after I finish my own.

The first thing you notice is the orchestra seating arrangement is different. With Maazel it was (left to right) violin 1, violin 2, cello, and viola. The new arrangement is violin 1, cello, viola, and violin 2. So now the double basses are now on the left part of the stage (from audience's viewpoint) rather than the right. I guess every conductor has the right to seat the sections that he is comfortable with. Nonetheless, when Gilbert guest-conducted he didn't seem to need his usual seating arrangement. Also, the concertmaster Dicterow yielded his position to Sheryl Maples, and reappeared when the Schoenberg piece was played. So it wasn't just a Maazel thing.

On the way over, I was frustrated that I couldn't hum the Brahms tunes. I was sure I was very familiar with it. Of course they all came back to me after listening to the playing.

Zimmerman is relatively young. Somehow the Stradivarious he played (made in 1711 and owned by Kreisler at one point) didn't carry as well as I thought it should. Nonetheless the performance was quite enjoyable. In contrast to Brahms' violin sonatas, the concerto is a very virtuoso piece. Zimmerman knocked them out with ease. The concerto was on the long side at about 40 minutes, and the first movement was a good 20 minutes in duration. The performance was crisp, coherent, and quite thrilling.

The violin concerto consists of three movements: Allegro non troppo; Adagio; and Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace - Poco piu presto. The second movement famously begins with an oboe melody. Quite similar to one of his piano concertos.

Zimmerman did do an encore piece. I couldn't hear him well, but he described it as what Paganini might have written if he had visited America. Turns out it was variations (quite a few of them) on "My country tis of thee" (or "God save our gracious queen" if one is from the UK.) While entertaining (and impressive), it was a bit long.

Gilbert started the second half by demonstrating with the orchestra the different leitmotifs used in Schoenberg's piece. As Schoenberg himself remarked, there were just too many of them: each of the main characters in the story, love and a range of other emotions, murder, conversations (usually depicted by intertwining motifs), and so on. Since none of them would prove easily hummable, I found them difficult to follow during the actual performance. One motif (I wish I remember whom/what it depicted) kept repeating itself throughout the piece.

The story is simple enough. Melisande marries Golaud but loves his stepbrother Pelleas. Pelleas wants to do the honorable thing and leave but is drawn to Melisande instead. Golaud kills Pelleas, Melisande dies after giving birth.

This work was composed when Schoenberg was 28 years old, before he firmly established his 12-tone music, and in that sense didn't sound like him at all. I may end up enjoying it more if I remember the leitmotifs. As it was I was rather lost. Without that storyline the music just sounded so-so.

Gilbert plans to introduce quite a bit of "unpopular" music to the season, and this was one of them. So far I am not getting it. Let's hope it gets better.

For completeness, the piece (about 40 minutes) consists of four movements played without pauses: opening sonata-form expanse, scherzo, slow movement, and a finale.

The New York Times reviewer loved it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Seattle Opera - Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, August 14, 2009.

Story. Hagen, son of Alberich, gets Gunther and Gutrune to give Siegfried a magic potion that erases his memory of Brunnhilde. For Siegfried to marry Gutrune, he has to get Brunnhilde for Gunther. Brunnhilde is warned by Waltraute, one of the Valkyries, to give up the ring. She will not do it as it is an emblem of love Siegfried has given her. Siegfried uses the Tarnhelm to disguise himself as Gunther, goes to the fiery rock, and takes Brunnhilde and the ring. Brunnhilde sees the ring and calls Siegfried on his deception. Enraged by Siegried's betrayal, she plots with Hagen and Gunther the murder of Siegfried and points out that the backside of Siegfried is unprotected. Siegfried is asked by the Rhine maidens to return the ring but refuses. Distracted by two ravens, Siegfried is killed by Hagen during the hunt. Everyone eventually catches on that it is the poison that started the chain of events, Gunther is killed, Guthrune commits suicide, and Brunnhilde immolates herself by walking into the funeral pyre of Siegfried. The Rhine maidens reclaim the ring and the story ends with an image of Wotan with his family.

Conductor – Robert Spano; Norns – Luretta Bybee, Stephanie Blythe, Margaret Jane Wray, Brunnhilde, Siegfried, Guther – Gordon Hawkins, Gutrune – Marie Plette, Alberich, Hagen – Daniel Sumegi, Waltraute – Stephanie Blythe, Flosshilde – Jennifer Hines, Wellgunde – Michele Losier, Woglinde – Julianne Gearhart.

All good things have to come to an end. Actually, all things have to come to an end. The ring cycle concludes with tonight's performance that lasted 5 ½ hours. The three acts are of durations 117, 64, and 77 minutes per the board by the entrance, and there are two 30-minute intermissions.

Technical problems prevented the curtains to be raised at the right time (twice) and the orchestra had to do a re-start. The explanation given by Speight Jenkins was a computer glitch, true or convenient, I don't know. At least he had the courage and decency to take responsibility, which is good.

This is the most interesting of the 4 operas. The story goes along at a good pace, and the singing was generally good. Stephanie Bythe, who played Fricka in earlier episodes, came back as a Norn and Walttraute (one of the Valkyries) and did an excellent job. She would be a most famous diva if she were a bit lighter and has another 3 notes or so in her range. I recall enjoying her singing as a witch in Rusalka.

I was expecting a lot of fire for the last scene and looked forward to it with anticipation. Alas, it was images of fires offstage and projected onto the curtain. The overall effect was interesting but at the end disappointing. The singing during this last scene was powerful, but failed to move the audience that a scene of such emotion generally would.

However, they did save the best for last.

Indeed the Ring is a challenge for everyone involved. I found myself drifting off every now and then (no doubt in part due to our doing other things during the week), but the artists couldn't do so. The conductor, who had to be “on” during the whole time, probably had the hardest mental job. Everyone else gets to relax here and there, but the conductor had no rest. The orchestra generally did okay, but there were some serious lapses. Tonight there were many passages that sounded very confused.

Countless books have been written and lectures have been given on the Ring. And I imagine there is a lot to study and learn about the topic. Wagner, after all, spent over 30 years (including the 12-year hiatus) composing the work. However, I suspect the story isn't really completely nailed down, and no amount of scholarly study would fix that problem. Another inevitability is comparison with Lord of the Rings. The Tolkien epic hangs together much better in terms of character development. The reader knows whom he should be rooting for.

Wagner may have decided to write his characters in such a way that they all have their strong points and character flaws. Instead of good triumphing over evil, everything gets destroyed at the end. (That doesn't explain why we see Wotan and family at the end, though.) The lecturer said the title could be translated “Gods' Gloaming”, thus not distinguishing between dawn or twilight. I don't see how Valhalla's destruction can be read as anything but “Twilight of the Gods.” In the end, there is not much moral to this story.

So, my feelings are mixed. I admire the effort in putting the Ring together, and am glad I sat through it (even though I dozed off a few times.) Beyond that I don't have much to say. Perhaps my appreciation will increase with time, or with additional attendance in other Ring cycles. Not sure how likely that would be, though.

Note added 9/20/2009. I couldn't find a review of the performances after I returned to NJ. However, today I saw a New York Times Article that talks about the Ring in general and the Seattle performances in particular. Rather interesting take on the subject, not a review though.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Seattle Opera - Wagner’s Siegfried, August 12, 2009.

Story. Siegfried's mother Sieglinde dies after giving birth to him, and he is raised by Alberich's brother Mime to be a brave young man. Siegfried manages to restore the sword Nothung and uses it to slay Fafner who has turned into a dragon to guard the ring and the gold. After tasting the dragon's blood, Siegfried can understand the woodbird which leads him to the fiery rock where Brunnhilde is sleeping. He wakes her up by kissing her and the two eventually fall in love.

Conductor – Robert Spano; Mime – Dennis Petersen, Siegfried – Stig Andersen, The Bear – JC Casiano, The Wanderer – Greer Grimsley, Alberich, Fafner, Forest Bird – Julianne Gearhart, Erda, Brunnhilde, Horn Call – Mark Robins.

This is a rather simple story, and at no time do they have more than three actors on the stage (as far as I can remember). And somehow Wagner manages to write a 4-hour opera (plus an hour of intermission) out of it.

Someone said it best about how simple the story was: Siegfried grows up, kills his foster father Mime, restores the sword, kills the dragon, revives Brunnhilde and marries her. So I should be excused to find the opera a bit drawn out (I am sure Anne fell asleep during the show) and a bit tough to focus at times.

Yesterday was a day off for the Ring. Anne and I flew down to San Francisco to have dinner with Ellie, Joe and Jessica. This morning we woke up at 6 am, had breakfast with Joe and Jessica, flew back up to Seattle, checked in at the hotel, and walked to Seattle Center to catch the 4:30 pm lecture. That craziness may have contributed to how tired I feel also. Perhaps the lesson here is: focus on going to the concerts and don’t try to squeeze so many other things. Fat chance.

A few words on some interesting facts we learned from the lectures so far. Wagner wrote the libretti first (beginning around 1848), starting with Gotterdammerung and working backwards to Das Rheingold. Music, however, was written in “chronological” order. But between Acts II and III of this third opera were 12 or so years during which Wagner worked on other projects including Tristan and Isolde and Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg. His style supposed changed considerably during this time. I frankly would be hard pressed to tell the difference.

Before the opera began, a gentleman (Speight Jenkins) came on stage to make a short announcement: Stig Andersen had been sick but felt good enough to sing the role of Siegfried. I had never heard Andersen before so didn’t know how he would sound if he was 100% healthy; as it was, he sounded quite weak.

Given the prominent role of Siegfried in this and the last opera, it was a surprise to us that he was basically a young and somewhat crude boy. The notes did say Wagner probably didn’t realize it would be difficult to get a young tenor to sing such a demanding role. While there was nothing “wrong” with Siegfried, he wasn’t a sympathetic figure as he went about his bumbling ways. Perhaps we would get a deeper insight if we see the opera for a second time?

While Wagner had well-defined leitmotifs (Valhalla’s is particularly distinct), most of the time they appear in the orchestral music, the singing is usually part of the “accompaniment” (for lack of a better word.) I am sure people with better knowledge of Wagner’s music would appreciate this arrangement, but to me it is a bit hard to follow. I get the same reaction with his other operas such as The Flying Dutchman and Tristan & Isolde.

A rather disappointing opera that I might have appreciated more if I had not tired myself out.

Seattle Opera – Wagner’s Die Walkure. August 10, 2009.

Story. See previous blog.

Conductor – Robert Spano; Siegmund – Stuart Skelton, Sieglinde – Margaret Jane Wray, Hunding, Wotan, Brunnhilde – Janice Baird, Fricka, Gerhilde – Miriam Murphy, Helmwige – Sally Wolf, Waltraute – Luretta Bybee, Schwertleite – Jennifer Hines, Ortlinde – Marie Plette, Siegrune – Sarah Heltzel, Grimgerde – Michele Losier, Rossweisse – Maria Streijffert.

During the pre-concert talk, Jonathan Dean drew parallels between characters in Das Rheingold and Die Walkuries. Indeed some singers take on other roles in other operas. For instance, Michele Rosier, Jennifer Hines and Maria Streijffert are cast as Valkyries.

We saw the same opera at the Met in February, 2008, and comparison with that performance - with Lorin Maazel conducting, and Deborah Voight in the role of Sieglinde – unavoidable. I remember enjoying that concert very much (such memory is confirmed by re-reading the blog), and Seattle Opera comes up considerably short in comparison. The only aspect Seattle excels in comparison is the fire scene, they do better pyrotechnics here. My complaints regarding Das Rheingold apply here. Janice Baird, singing Brunnhilde, will figure prominently in this and subsequent operas. Her singing is fine, albeit unsteady at times.

In seeing this opera for the second time, more issues come into focus. Fricka, for example, expressed her reservations about Sigmund and Sieglinde getting married since they are twins. I understand a bit better how Wotan felt about Brunnhilde’s betrayal. Perhaps the English subtitles are clearer, or just because seeing something a second time always helps.

I overheard someone saying this is his third Ring. I wonder if I would have the urge to do that. Certainly not now!

Seattle Opera - Wagner’s Das Rheingold, August 9, 2009.

McCaw Hall, Second Tier, Aisle S (Seat N3, $118.50)

Anne and I are on our own “quest” for the Ring. Not that we love Wagner so much, but we are rather curious about the stamina required (both of the artists and the audience) and would like to experience it for ourselves. The four operas in the series total about 14 hours (17 hours with intermissions). We initially booked tickets to the series at the Washington DC Opera for later this summer, but that got canceled because of financial problems at that organization. Turns out the Met announced its own Ring series right about we bought tickets to the DC series, and all the moderately priced seats were gone by the time we looked. That left Seattle, which still had reasonably priced tickets left. We also bought tickets to the pre-concert talks for $8 a session.

When we bought the tickets, we thought it would be nice to spend a week during the summer in Seattle anyway. Despite it notorious always-overcast reputation, our prior visits to Seattle have been enjoyable. As things turn out, Ellie is now in San Francisco on her fellowship, and Joe and Jessica will be there on August 11. So we decided to fly down on the day “off” to SFO to meet up with them for dinner. (I am on UA133 SEA-SFO as I type this.) It was rainy as we drove to the airport this morning, and it was overcast yesterday, so perhaps we are not missing much on the touring end.

I unfortunately caught a cold just before I left New Jersey, the coughing hasn't been so bad (and manageable with OTC drugs), but the sinus problem is causing my right ear to feel really clogged up. While bearable, it does make me a bit grumpy.

All said and done, this trip is going to cost quite a bit of money. Much more than just biting the bullet and buying the better seats at the Met. I wonder how I would feel when it is all said and done.

On with the review ...

Story. Alberich the Nibelung steals the Rheingold from the Rhine, and forges a ring from it that gives him a lot of power. He also has a Tranhelm (helmet) made that can turn him into any form he chooses. Wotan asks the giants Fafner and Fasolt to complete Valhalla for him in exchange for Friea. Wotan's wife Fricka gets Wotan to try to “renegotiate” the deal. Wotan and Loge manage to trick Alberich to turn himself into a toad, capture him, and wrest the gold and ring away from him. Alberich curses anyone who would subsequently possess the ring. The giants agree to take the gold and the ring, and immediately Fafner kills Fasolt. Wotan then retreats to Valhalla.

Conductor – Robert Spano; Woglinde – Julianne Gearhart, Wellgunde – Michele Losier, Flosshilde – Jennifer Hines, Alberich – Richard Paul Fink, Fricka – Stephanie Blythe, Wotan – Greer Grimsley, Freia – Marie Plette, Fasolt – Andrea Silvestrelli, Fafner – Daniel Sumegi, Froh – Jason Collins, Donner – Gordon Hawkins, Loge – Kobie van Rensburg, Mime – Dennis Petersen, Erda – Maria Streijffert.

The lecture was given by Jonathan Dean, who provided the translation for the subtitles. His talk was a bit long at an hour or so, leaving no time to do anything between the talk and the concert (e.g., to get some decent food.) Since we are not here to gorge ourselves on food, the sandwich we shared afterwards was okay (we bought some cup of noodles after the concert.)

One would expect from these pre-concert talks some historical background, why the music is significant, and in the case of the Ring, a description of the leitmotifs. We get that. However, the speaker felt the need to add a considerable amount of post-modern and green-crazy editorial remarks to his speech that I find unnecessary and contrived. The set for the Seattle Ring is called “green” I think mainly due to the heavy use of trees and woods. Ecology conscious, perhaps, but certainly not ecological.

He did have a few interesting observations. One was how Wagner weaved together old Germanic myths, Greek tragedies, heavy romantic music, and philosophical questions into the operas. The other was how the characters can be grouped into water, earth, air, and fire (today's analogy would be liquid, solid, gas, and plasma, according to him). Whether he is merely quoting others, or he arrived at the insight himself, I do not know. But I find his remark that there are no/few pure good and bad characters to be very true. (I have seen two operas as I type this.)

Onto the performance. Overall the two I have seen so far are just so-so. I will make the Walkurie-specific comments in the blog on that opera.

The Hall was plunged into darkness (except for the Exit signs) for quite a while when the concert started. Then a soft sound emanated from the orchestra. A very interesting way to begin, and I have no idea how the members communicated with one another.

The beginning scene with the Rhine maidens was technically interesting. The three maidens are on harnesses that make them “swim” in the river quite effortlessly. They have to sing while being moved about in three dimensions, and move their tail fins (feet) all the time. Somehow they can keep their postures straight, spin around, and do some rather difficult passages.

As McCaw Hall was opened in 2003 or so, the poor acoustics was a surprise to me. The sound was generally muffled. This is particularly true of the orchestra which just sounded chaotic. I am sure the orchestra's playing contributed some, but the acoustics must bear some of the blame. The horns were quite unsteady, especially at the beginning. The overall playing improved as the concert went on, though. This was opening night, after all.

Most of the singing was just so-so. Wotan figures prominently in the advertising, but his voice didn't project well at all. The one notable exception is Fricka, sung by Blythe. Her voice was great and carried very well. Anne had particular problems with the giants, although I found their style quite appropriate for the roles.

Dean pointed out in this opera there are no human beings. Other than broad brushes, I don't find it very important to distinguish one type of being from another (gods, demi-gods, giants, Nibelungs, humans, etc.) Books have been written about the Ring on issues that Wagner probably wouldn't have imagined,

This opera is the shortest of the four at 2 hours 30 minutes, no intermission. It was generally okay. I wonder how we would feel about the series after our last concert Friday.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra - Edward Gardner, conductor. August 1, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat U116, $30).

Overture to Die Zauberflote, K. 620 (1791) by Mozart.
Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, K. 456 (1784) by Mozart.
Serande for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31 (1943) by Britten.
Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543 (1788) by Mozart.

Toby Spence, Tenor; Lawrence DiBello, Horn; Piotr Anderszewski, Piano.

This was the first MM concert we attended despite having lived in the area for 30 years. I guess there were no compelling reasons to go to one; the concerts occur during the summer and we are usually too tired from the regular season to want to make it into NYC. While the programs tend to contain works by other composers, an all-Mozart concert is a bit much for me: another reason for my general lack of excitement.

We got half-price tickets from (we did have to pay $6.50 each for processing fee). The concert was quite well attended, there were many people outside looking to buy tickets. Our seats were quite good. They also had seats on the stage.

The overture was well-done and (unfortunately) set expectations that were not met by the rest of the program. The orchestra was precise, the dynamic range was good, and the music had a bounciness to it that was enjoyable.

I was not familiar with the piano concerto. At 30 minutes it is on the long side for Mozart. Anderszewski's performance is okay but not inspiring. Anne and I agree he pounds on the instrument a bit much. The performance reminds me of the one by Mustonen, described as quirky by a critic. The concerto contains the traditional movements Allegro vivace, Andante un poco sostenuto, and Allegro vivace.

Britten's Seranade was written with his companion Peter Pears in mind. It is an interesting construction utilizing diverse poems written by different authors. The piece is bookended by a prologue and epilogue played by the horn, with the epilogue played off stage. The horn player left during the last movement (the Sonnet), bringing with him the mute that we never saw him use. The movements of the work are (i) Pastoral, text by Charles Cotton; (ii) Nocturne, Lord Tennyson; (iii) Elegy, William Blake; (iv) Dirge, anonymous "Lyke-Wake" Dirge; (v) Hymn, Ben Jonson; and (vi) Sonnet, John Keats. One feels that the horn player (the principal horn of the orchestra) was out of his league. While he probably got most/all of the notes, the sound was quite muddled. The tenor is a young Englishman. His voice projected quite well, but the falsetto was a bit too obvious.

The Symphony was also unfamiliar. The program notes describes this as the least commonly played of the "Final Trilogy" written by Mozart during the summer of 1788. By this time the orchestra's playing was not nearly as precise as it was at the beginning. Sounds were muddled, precision was off, and the crispness that one would like to hear had by-and-large disappeared. Perhaps the program (three 30-minutes pieces and the overture) was a bit long and the artists' couldn't hold their concentration that long? The symphony's four movements are Adagio - Allegro; Andante con moto; Menuetto: Allegreto; and Finale: Allegro.

I don't have much to say about the conductor other than he is another young Englishman.

At the end of the day, what matters is that it was still an enjoyable evening. However, this concert is definitely in the take-it-or-leave-it category. Despite our plans to travel during the month, we may still be able to make a couple of additional concerts. Will we? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Opera New Jersey – Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, July 24, 2009.

Berlind Theatre, Princeton University – Floor 2 Seat Q103 ($59).

Story. Pedrillo, Konstanze, and Blonde are captured by pirates and sold to Pasha Selim. Selim wants Konstanze’s love, and his servant Osmin wants that of Blonde. Belmonte finds them and hatches a plot to drug Osmin so they can escape. Instead they are caught and condemned to death. However, Selim decides to pardon the four.

Conductor – Mark Flint; Belmonte – Scott Ramsay, Osmin – Matthew Lau, Pedrillo – Aaron Pegram, Konstanze – Jennifer Rowley, Pasha Selim – Ray Menard, Blonde – Rachele Gilmore.

I didn’t know what to expect from tonight’s performance; everything was unfamiliar and felt a bit strange. I didn’t know if the company is professional, I knew nothing of the singers, and I had no idea how they planned to pull the show off in front of a small audience (the Theatre, part of the Princeton McCarter Performance Arts Complex, seats fewer than 400 people). There are four performances of this opera, with a total of about 60 artists (30 in the orchestra, 30 in the opera) and, if one goes by the program notes, a host of support staff. With 1200 people paying say an average of $50, the box office for the four performances would amount to about $60,000 if every seat is sold. Compare that with the Met at a capacity of 3000 at $80 a seat.

The Theatre feels larger than I expected, but still very intimate (we were in the last row). The sound was good. The orchestra sounded okay also.

The artists sang their hearts out. Konstanze had a strong voice that felt a bit unrefined, at times bordering on fingernails on a chalkboard (well, not that bad). Belmonte’s voice wasn’t exceptional, but he could hold his breath forever, it seems. Pedrillo and Blonde were the best played roles.

I must confess comedies don’t work for me, and I am not a fan of Mozart’s operas either. (The only Mozart comedic opera that works for me is The Magic Flute, but that’s more due to the theatrics and staging.) The double whammy wasn’t helped by the mediocre cast. Actually at intermission we overheard someone suggesting it’s un-PC nowadays to put out something that seems to malign a particular religion; although I must point out the Pasha ended up being magnanimous.

All said and done, I don’t regret spending the time watching the 3 hour opera. I don't find the English dialog that out of place as I did with Magic Flute.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Afiara String Quartet. 7/20/2009.

Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University. Row 1, Balcony Left.

Quartet members: Valerie Li & Yuri Cho, violins; David Samuel, viola; Adrian Fung, cello.

String Quartet Op. 18, No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).
Cat O’ Nine Tails by John Zorn (b. 1953).
Crisantemi by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).
String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 68 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).

The word Afiara is based on the Spanish verb that means trust, which is not a bad way to describe what quartet members look for in one another. This group, formed in San Francisco, consists of Canadians. Per the program, they have won quite a few awards (not sure how prestigious those awards are) and will be a resident quartet at Julliard.

The Beethoven quartet was written quite early in the composer’s music career (we heard Op. 95 last week). Writing this a couple of days after hearing it, I find out to my dismay I don’t remember much of it, except that it is a more equal partnership among the four players – even though there was no doubt what the principal instrument was. The four movements are (i) Allegro; (ii) Andante con moto; (iii) Allegro; and (iv) Presto.

Zorn is supposedly a well-known jazz composer (I of course didn’t know that). Fung described the music a bit, although it still didn’t prepare the audience for the interesting sounds the instruments produced. Oftentimes they make sounds that a traditional string player would say “oops” to. These include playing on the “wrong” part of the string, quickly sliding the fingers up and down, applying the right amount of pressure to make a grating noise. I was quite taken for the first few minutes, but then thought to myself 12 minutes of this was a bit much, unless the intention is to make the listener cringe, in which case it succeeds.

I didn’t know Puccini wrote anything other than operas. Looking up Wikipedia, I see there is a long list of non-operatic works. I am embarrassed to say this is the first piece I heard. Chrysanthemum was written for his friend’s funeral. It was later retitled “elegy” for the commercial market. It was a nice 5 minute piece that I wouldn’t have associated with Puccini (again shows my lack of knowledge.)

I recall hearing another Shostakovich quartet a few years ago at Princeton, it was performed by the Bretano Quartet. Going back to my notes, that was a much later quartet (Op. 144). I remember that as being a very dark piece of music that was quite interesting and enjoyable. Tonight’s didn’t disappoint either, except it (again) reinforced my biggest gripe with quartets: can’t get away from the impression that it is solo violin with three string accompanists. On its own one may consider this a rather dark piece of music, but compared to Op.144 (which drove my expectations), it was downright sunny. It was written in a major key, at least.

It was an overall enjoyable concert. Sometimes I think they should give the second violin the more brilliant instrument so that part can be heard more clearly. The bass and viola acquitted themselves quite well, though.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

St. Petersburg String Quartet; Teddy Abrams, Clarinet. 7/13/2009.

Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University. Row 3, Balcony Left.

Quartet members:
Alla Aranovskaya & Alla Krolevich, violins; Boris Vayner, viola; Leonid Shukayev, cello.

String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95 "Serioso" by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).
Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 92 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953).
Clarinet Quartet in B Minor, Op. 115 by Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897).

Our friends David and Vivien alerted to this concert. They were nice enough to offer to get to Princeton at 6:30 pm to get tickets for us. It ended up being their son Peter and their friend Melinda who got tickets for us. We grabbed a quick bite at Panera Bread across the street. The concert was well-intended.

While the first violinist went backstage to find her music, the violist described briefly the Beethoven and Prokofiev pieces. The Beethoven piece (at about 25 minutes) is the shortest ("most shortest," in the violist's words) of his quartets. Prokofiev wrote this quartet while living in the mountains as a result of evacuation during the war. It contains quite a few references to local folk melodies. The clarinetist described that clarinet pieces are usually written for specific musicians that impress particular composers, and that Brahms did this after he retired from composing after Op. 111 (if I remember correctly).

The group played well together. The viola seemed particularly strong and rich. The cello player was quite good, with his fingers flying all over the finger board. He did the cello's principal lines very well, but lots of times I wished he was stronger. The second violin also could be stronger.

The Prokofiev piece does contain quite a few folk-like melodies, but I am sure Prokofiev made it sound much more modern than the melodies are. Abrams said the end of the Brahms piece repeats the theme in the first movement. Alas, neither Anne nor I could hear that connection.

String quartets are not my cup of tea. No matter how carefully I listen to the music, it always seems to be three string players accompanying the first violinist. Some of that undoubtedly is due to the inherent nature of the first violin playing the highest pitched notes; as the time-keeper, the first violinist also tends to move the most (considerably so in this case); and admittedly this is simply how quartet music is written. Even though the pieces tonight seemed more balanced than usual, I still came away with some players predominantly in the accompaniment mode. Perhaps I should study a couple of pieces in depth and learn to appreciate how they fit together. Or simply listen to more quartets.

For the record, I list the movements of the three works. Beethoven (i) Allegro con brio; (ii) Allegretto ma non troppo; (iii) Allegro assai vivace ma serioso; and (iv) Larghetto espressivo - Allegretto agitato. Prokofiev: (i) Allegro sostenuto; (ii) Adagio; and (iii) Allegro. Brahms: (i) Allegro; (ii) Adagio; (iii) Andantino. Presto non assai, ma con sentimento; and (iv) Con moto.

Anne and I had frozen yogurts afterwards. Traffic to and from Princeton was unusually light today.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, conductor. June 24, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Center (Seat EE5, $54).

Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major (1906-07) by Mahler (1860-1911)

Christine Brewer, Nancy Gustafson, Jeanine De Bique, Sopranos
Mary Phillips, Nancy Maultsby, Mezzo-Sopranos
Anthony Dean Griffey, Tenor
Wolfgang Schone, Bass
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, Director
The Dessoff Symphonic Choir, James Bagwell, Director
Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun, Director

This series of concerts will be Maazel’s last as music director of the New York Philharmonic, and for this special occasion they will play the “Symphony of a Thousand” by Mahler. Anne and I debated whether we should take the train in from Seacaucus Junction since the park & ride lot is now open, but decided to drive in via the Holland Tunnel. We managed to get free parking on 10th Ave and shared a sandwich from EuroPan before the concert.

When the evening began, the Philharmonic’s Chairman Paul Guenther came on stage to pay a short tribute to Maazel, and presented a couple of plaques from the City and the Philharmonic Society to Maazel. Maazel also said some words, including the oft-used wistful words “all good things must come to an end.” Mayor Bloomberg designated the day as “Lorin Maazel Day” and Maazel in turned declared the evening to be Mahler’s. I thought a better tribute would have been to the orchestra.

This symphony is a massive piece of music. It is divided into two parts, totaling about 90 minutes. The first part is based on the medieval Latin hymn “Veni, creator spiritus” written for the Pentecost; it lasts about 30 minutes (program notes say 23). The second part is based on the final scene of Faust, the poem written by Goethe. It is in German.

The premiere of the symphony employed 858 singers, 171 instruments, and 1 conductor, totaling 1030. For tonight’s concert, I estimate 250 singers and 150 instruments. Nearly everyone in the orchestra showed up; I am sure there were a few temps also.

The complexity of the symphony is frankly beyond me. I do not understand how the two parts relate to each other. Actually, the meaning of the individual parts escapes me also. Finally, the music is not something I would have naturally associated with Mahler. I think of Mahler’s music as a series of vistas.

Part I sounds very much like the hymn it is. There is much shouting involved. Part II is more complicated. It begins with about 10 minutes of instrument music, before the voices come in. Also, it is more “opera-like” and in many places is evocative of Puccini. The dynamic range is much wider. The soloists put in a mixed performance, more often than not their voices are lost in the cacophony of choir and orchestra music. De Bique sang only two lines from the Second Tier Box as Mater gloriosa. This must be one of the shortest performances that earned the artist a billing in the program. There were brass instruments that played from the balcony, and many passages where only a few instruments accompanied the singing. Maazel’s movements were more pronounced than usual, perhaps the weight of this being the last series got to him.

The audience gave Maazel an enthusiastic curtain call at the end. Many ignored the house rules and whipped out their cameras to take pictures.

I haven’t found any review on the concert yet as I write this. I am glad I went, both to experience this complex piece of music, and to witness the end of the Maazel era.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, conductor. June 20, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat BB15, $54).

Monaco Fanfares, Op. 8 (1986) by Lorin Maazel (b. 1930).
Farewells: Symphonic Movement, Op. 14 (1998-99) by Maazel.
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901-02) by Sibelius (1865-1957)

This is the second to last series before Maazel retires at the end of the season. We saw the concert last week, and plan to see the concert next week (Mahler No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand) as well.

The Program Notes contains some interesting tidbits of the composing process as Maazel sees it. Fanfares was written more or less on a lark since Maazel was hearing the fanfares being played daily while he lived in Monaco. It has hints of Ravel’s Bolero, but I doubt very much it would be nearly as successful. The Farewells piece is quite long at over 25 minutes, and utilizes an army of percussion instruments (including the glass plate, bell plates, whistle, lion’s roar; the whistle is blown by a percussion player). The title would suggest it was written for this occasion, but it turns out to be farewells to the earth as we know it. It is a piece that an environmentalist would love. In his rather detailed description of the work, Maazel talks of depleted ozone layers, disappearance of species, and arms of mass destruction. The piece is indeed quite pessimistic. I could follow the music with the program notes reasonably well at first, but eventually gave up as it got grayer and grayer. There is a degree of monotony after a while: one can only take so much bad news and it then flies over your head.

Maazel says he now writes only cheerful music. Let’s hope he does well with it.

The second symphony is Sibelius’s most played symphony, and we are quite sure we have heard it several times before. We are familiar only with a couple of tunes, including the phrase which famously attempts to come out several times before it is fully stated. Sibelius music is usually melancholic, this is no exception; but it sounds much brighter after hearing the Farewells piece earlier. Inevitably people try to read politics and a script into the symphony, even though it was discouraged by Sibelius himself. I am okay with being told whether the composer had a narrative in mind.

The four movements (several played without pause) have the longest tempo markings: (i) Allegretto - Poco allegro - Tranquillo, ma poco a poco ravvivando il tempo al allegro; (ii) Temp andante, ma rubato - Andante sostenuto; (iii) Vivacissimo - Lento e suave - Largamente; and (iv) Finale. Allegro moderato.

It is interesting to observe Sibelius managed to get out a full texture of sounds with the most traditional orchestration (e.g., timpani being the only percussion instruments). If I may misquote Rimsky-Korsalkov’s comment on the performance: “Well, I suppose that’s possible, too.”

The audience gave Maazel a long ovation after the concert, which is quite well-deserved. Despite all the criticism by these New York Times reviewers, I have enjoyed the New York Philharmonic during the several years I have been going to their concerts. I have also considered myself an “average” concert goer as concert goers go, so I am glad the play is at my level. Never too simple, and with an occasional piece that’s over my head. That, evidently, is not good enough for our professional listeners.

In the car on the way back, we listened to Brahm's first symphony on WQXR which also contained one tune familiar to us amidst music that sounded vaguely familiar.

The New York Times review is uncharacteristically enthusiastic.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, conductor. June 13, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Third Tier Center (Seat EE102, $47).

War Requieum, Op. 66 (1961-62) by Britten (1913-76).

Lionel Bringuier, Conductor, chamber orchestra
Nancy Gustafson, Soprano; Vale Rideout, Tenor; Ian Greenlaw, Baritone
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Fluumerfelt, Director
The Dessoff Symphonic Choir, James Bagwell, Director
Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun, Director
Choral preparation by Joseph Flummerfelt

I bought a ticket for myself via at $45 (including service charge). Chung Shu & Shirley were planning to go also, so we planned to car pool together. Shirley wasn’t feeling well, so Chung Shu and I drove up together and we had one spare ticket to sell, which we did for $30. It was my ticket, and it took us a while to figure out to whom the money belongs.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The program notes, which I read in advance, describe this as a pacifist statement by Britten, who was considered the greatest British composer since Purcell. Interesting, since some consider Vaughan Williams to be that greatest British composer, Britten must have dethroned him.

I certainly don’t think Purcell wrote anything nearly as complicated. This is a “traditional” Requiem mass combined with a poem written by Wilfred Owen, a soldier killed by a German sniper. As far as I could tell, the NY Choral Artists and Dessoff Symphonic Choir were combined into one large choir (about 300 people), and the Youth Chorus sang offstage. Some members of the NY Philharmonic constituted the chamber orchestra conducted by this 22- or 23-year old French conductor. All together there were about 400 to 450 performers.

The mass was sung in Latin, the poem in English. The full orchestra accompanied the Latin mass and the chamber orchestra accompanied the poem. Chung Shu observed that the soprano didn’t sing anything in English.

One could quibble why all this is necessary. Bach’s St. Matthew’s passion requires two orchestras and is conducted by a single conductor. While 300 plus singers is impressive, I am sure they could get by with one group. The way the chamber orchestra is situated (facing “backwards”) made it difficult for the two male soloists to see the conductor. Also, it was a challenge for the soloists (especially the soprano) to be heard above the chorus.

Given how complex the work is, some miscues are to be expected. This was particularly so at the beginning, but the performance improved as they got into it. And I am sure there are some passages that sound confusing and chaotic by design.

The Requiem part of the work is traditional enough. The six parts are Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Libera me. To me the most gruesome part of the poem was how Abraham continued to kill Isaac even though a ram was prepared in his place. Britten probably wanted to illustrate the absurdity of war by juxtaposing the texts. In my opinion, it doesn’t quite work. The two parts don’t contrast, they just feel incongruent. A mass deals with the afterlife and states whatever on this earth doesn’t matter to the dead, so the fact that people fight and kill on this earth isn’t quite relevant. Instead of being a pacifist statement, the work just comes across confused.

As a composition, the work is quite interesting. The requiem part sounds okay (although I like Faure’s better), and the war part is probably okay, although not overwhelming. The program annotator calls it “one of music’s towering monuments, a masterpiece of layered meaning”, a statement that is a bit too over the top for me. Most tellingly, I suspect few people, even pacifists, leave the concert thinking about the issue of war.

The New York Times review is quite brutal, calling the performance “a straightforward musical statement.” In defense of Maazel, the reviewer – obviously not a fan of Maazel - might be trying to find meaning where none was to be found.

Friday, May 15, 2009

New York Philharmonic – David Zinman, conductor; Christian Tetzlaff, violin. May 14, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 4 Rear (Seat JJ11, $44).

Night on Bald Mountain (1866-67; orch. by Rimsky-Korsakov 1886) by Mussorgsky (1839-81).
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 99 (1947-48) by Shostakovich (1906-75).
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 (1912-19) by Sibelius (1865-1957)

We got tickets for this concert because it was to be conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. He was out with back problems and Zinman stepped in; they also changed the program. I am impressed that they could substitute with something as complicated as the Shostakovich piece on such short notice. It was last performed by this orchestra more than 2 years ago.

We decided to drive in. The tunnels were backed up, so we drove through Jersey City to reach Holland Tunnel, which was relatively easy. We also managed to park on 10th Ave, saving $30 or so in Lincoln Center parking fees. I talked to Chung Shu today and joked that we finally grew up and are now like Mr. Yang. Coming home was no problem either.

Our tickets were exchanged from another concert that we couldn't go to. Those were "best available seats" at $54 each; our downgraded seats were actually quite good, only complaint is they were a bit far from the stage. With a reasonable pair of binoculars, we were fine.

The original pieces that got substituted were by Lutoslawski and Szymanowski. I am sure I have as much trouble understanding their music as I would pronouncing their names. The gentleman sitting next to me was a bit disappointed, though. When we were chatting during a break, we discovered he also saw the concert where Vadim Repin broke his violin string and performed "the miraculous exchange".

The Mussorgsky piece is a "warhorse" and was pleasant to listen to. I was surprised at how fast it is played. The impressive thing was the orchestra was quite precise.

I hadn't heard Tetzlaff before, and the Shostakovich violin concerto was also new to me. The replacement program had several interesting observations on the piece, including the fact that it was dedicated to David Oistrakh, that Rostropovich despised Oistrakh (I wouldn't have expected that), and the obligatory remark that Shostakovich lived in difficult polititcal times. The soloist needed the music, which while a bit unexpected, was understandable since he wasn't planning on this piece.

What can I say about the performance? In a word, jaw-dropping. The first movement (Nocturne: Moderato) was straightforward enough, although a slow movement is a bit unusual for a first movement. The violin Tetzlaff uses (per Playbill) is modeled after a Guarneri del Gesu, made by the German violinmaker Peter Greiner. It projected better than most Guarnerius violins I have heard before, and had a good quality tone to it. I began to admire Tetzlaff as a virtuoso during the second movement (Scherzo: Allegro); many of the passages could be considered violent and we expected a string to snap at any time. While none did, (thanks to my binoculars) quite a few hairs on the bow did break. The third movement (Passacaglia: Andante) had such along introduction that I wondered whether the violin was going to have a part at all. The fourth movement (Burlesque: Allegro con brio - Presto) was the coup de grace. I couldn't find the right words to describe all the different difficult passages. Anne made the observation that Tetzlaff didn't even break a sweat, making the performance like a regular day at the office. He didn't move around much either. After the tremendous applause and several curtain calls, Tetzlaff played a slow piece with many double- and triple-stops.

After the violin concerto, Sibelius sounded staid, calm, and regular. It consists of three movements: (i) Tempo molto moderato - Allegro moderato; (ii) Andante mosso, quasi allegretto; and (iii) Allegro molto - Misterioso. Playbill quotes the composer saying this "... God opens His door for a moment ..." and "triumphal." And it was written in a major key. Still, the brightest of Sibelius is still a rather somber affair. It was relatively short at 35 minutes. However, it was "just another symphony" in my opinion. Perhaps I need to hear it more often. Embarrassingly, of the two tunes listed in the Playbill I managed to catch only the one by the horns.

On our way back, we heard the last movement of Saint-Saen's third violin concerto, followed by a piece by Martinu. Turns out it was a broadcast over WQXR of a concert we were at a couple of weeks ago. Only with proper sound engineering, the violin sounded loud and clear, and the piano part in Martinu appears so integral that Anne wonders why she had trouble hearing it live.

The concert we went to was the first of a series. I couldn't find any review of it yet.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, Conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. May 5, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 4 Rear (Seat KK12, $52).

Zlaty kolovrat (The Golden Spinning Wheel), Symphonic Poem, Op. 109 (1896) by Dvorak (1841-1904)
Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61 (1880) by Saint-Saens (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 4, H. 305 (1945) by Martinu (1890-1959)

We decided to drive in, and took the Holland Tunnel because Lincoln was reported to be congested. It took only about 90 minutes for me to get Anne at Rahway and then get to Lincoln Center. And the return home was without any problem either.

Alan Gilbert, of course, is the conductor-designate of the New York Philharmonic. We have heard his name for a while by now, but tonight was to be our first time watching him conduct. Thus we went to this concert with a bit of anticipation.

Tonight's concert consisted of a violin concerto in the standard virtuoso repertoire and two little-played pieces by two Bohemian-born composers, one well-known. Indeed the pieces were each played only once before by the New York Philharmonic. The Dvorak piece in 1932, the Martinu piece in 1986.

The Golden Spinning Wheel is based on a grisly story (poem) written by Czech poet Erben: Dornicka's step-mother and step-sister kill her so the king can be deceived into marrying the step-sister. While the king goes to war, a mysterious old man gets the young queen to exchange the body parts she took and restores Dornicka to life. The golden spinning wheel the young queen gets, however, creeks out a song describing the crime. The step-sister and step-mother are thrown to the wolves and the king and her true wife are re-united. The Program Notes reassure the reader that the story is easy to follow; and one can indeed hear how the story unfolds. I find the piece a bit straight-forward and uninspiring. Even though there are interesting themes here and there, the overall lack of structure and dynamics make the piece an overall disappointment.

I know the violin concerto quite well, but Anne was uncharacteristically not very familiar with it. It is a virtuoso piece of the highest order. Bell acquitted himself very well, putting in an admirable performance. Surprisingly there were slight intonation problems every now and then, and some of the runs and arpeggios were a bit muddled. The second movement was taken at an uncharacteristically fast pace, but it worked quite well. The orchestra is always overshadowed by a piece like this, but to the extent one pays attention to it, one would find a great performance as well. We were seated at the rear of the orchestra section, so even the 1713 "Gibson ex Huberman" Stradivarius sometimes sounded weak. The three movements of the concerto are (i) Allegro non troppo; (ii) Andantino quasi allegretto; and (iii) Molto moderato e maestoso - Allegro non troppo. The program notes mention that Bell is now on the faculty of Univ of Indiana as a senior lecturer. One would think he would get a higher-ranked appointment than that, or does Indiana have extremely high standards?

I am quite sure I had never heard of Bohuslav Martinu before, although he was a very prolific composer. Tonight's symphony consists of four movements: (i) Poco moderato; (ii) Allegro vivo - Trio: Moderato - Allegro vivo; (iii) Largo; and (iv) Poco allegro. It was written just as World War II was won, and supposedly reflects the joy felt by the composer who fled Europe to the United States. I didn't quite know what to expect, but was surprised that it didn't sound as contemporary as one would expect of work composed in 1945. The structures of the movements were "classical" in the sense that one could hear themes, developments, etc. Viewed from that perspective, however, then there is no comparison with the popular masterpiece symphonies. I find the piece limited in its dynamic, chromatic, and emotional range.

Gilbert appears to be an energetic and precise conductor with his particular set of gestures. The orchestra seems to respond well, and tonight did an admirable job. However, the programming leaves quite a bit to be desired. I don't have a problem with seldom-heard pieces (even though oftentimes pieces are unpopular for good reasons), but I hope they are not included in a program for that reason alone.

The audience gave Gilbert an enthusiastic response. The New York Times review describes the performance using words and phrases like "engrossing", "radiant" and "so far, so good." For me, alas, the jury is still out.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Il Travatore, April 25, 2009.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle Seat E13 ($126.50).

Story. A gypsy woman bewitching the sons of a Count is captured and is to be burned at the stake. Her daughter Azucena, seeking revenge, steals one of the sons and intends to throw him onto the pyre. She kills her own son by mistake and ends up raising the stolen brother as her own son. The two brothers, Count Di Luna and Manrico, grow up and end up loving the same woman Leonora, who loves Manrico. By capturing Azucena, Di Luna traps Manrico and is going to have him executed. Leonora goes to Di Luna promising to marry him in exchange for Manrico’s freedom. She tells Manrico he is free, and dies in his arm from the poison she has taken. Di Luna has Manrico executed, and as Azucena is led to her death she yells she has finally avenged her mother.

Conductor – Riccardo Frizza; Leonora – Hasmik Papian, Count di Luna – Ziljko Lucic, Manrico – Marco Berti, Azucena – Dolora Zajick.

After a full day of Boating Safety class, Anne was a bit tired. I was worried it would end up being a very long day by the time we were done. We caught the 6:42 pm train to New York, it got delayed a bit, including a stop to make sure kids playing around the train tracks were accounted for; and the subway ride was slow because of construction on the tracks. We had only a few minutes to spare by the time we got to our seats. Good thing this performance had a start time of 8:30 pm (probably because they had a 6 hour Gotterdammerung for the Matinee). So dinner for us was a sandwich, a brownie, and a bar of chocolate during the intermission.

Probably the most well-known song from this opera is the “Anvil Song” which depicts gypsy life. It is an enjoyable tune where several very muscular men provide the anvil sounds with sledgehammers. Somewhat like the “Royal Procession Song” in Aida, the song is not all the germane to the story, but is nonetheless quite enjoyable. There are many other arias from Il Travatore that are very pleasant and well-known. They are not as melodious as what you hear in, say, La Traviata, but immensely enjoyable nonetheless. Verdi in his older years would rely on fewer detachable melodies for his operas, which to me is a bit of a pity.

The majority of the production team, soloists, and the conductor are all Europeans. (Even the Oregon-born Azucena has a East-European sounding name.) The production is co-produced with Chicago’s Lyric Opera and the San Francisco Opera. Does that mean the Met is running out of local talent? I certainly hope not. The singers are okay, great at times, but I won’t characterize the overall performance as brilliant. There was so much “shouting” that I wonder if the singers’ voices would not be harmed. Of the four major characters, Marinco’s was the most disappointing, the quality of his voice was not quite at the level one would expect of a Met singer. Leonora’s voice was okay but a bit weak at places. And I was sure she was out of tune several times, and had trouble with some of the high notes. Di Luna’s was a solid bass (baritone?), but not memorable. Azucena got the most applause from the audience, but in my opinion she was good only in comparison with the others. Of course the general level of singing is excellent, except the Met puts out so many great performances.

A few years ago Anne & I were on a long drive and we listened to the entire opera on CD with Anne reading off the English translation. I remember that was a rather enjoyable experience. As I said in the case of “The Damnation of Faust”, a performance with the acting is by far a much richer experience; the same difference holds here. The program notes also point to how Goya's paintings and etchings were used as inspiration for the uniforms and staging.

When analyzed carefully, the story is a bit far-fetched. However, for the opera works well both dramatically and musically. Many of the tunes are quite familiar, but I didn’t remember them as being in this opera. I think I need to hear it more.

The concert ended at about 11:15 pm, we took the 12:18 am train which got us home after 1 am. So for Anne it ended up being a very long day.

The New York Times reviewer saw a much earlier show which had a different conductor and (except for Azecuna) different principal singers.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The National Chorale & Orchestra – Martin Josman, Music Director. April 24, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Third Tier Left (Seat BB108, $53).

At the River (1954) by Aaron Copland, arr. By R. Wilding White
Las Agachadas (1942) by Copland
Psalm 121 (1953) by Henry Cowel.
Trois Chansons (1916) by Maurice Ravel
Closing Hymn: Israfel from Songfest (1977) by Leonard Bernstein
Carmina Burana (1935) by Carl Orff

Chung Shu, Shirley & I drove up again. We wanted to go through Jersey City so it would have a chance to redeem its reputation - our having suffered horrendous delays on our last trip. Traffic on a nice late Friday afternoon was bad, but we made it in about 90 minutes, and managed to find (free) off-street parking close to Lincoln Center. We met up with Anne at Ollie's and had a quick dinner.

Many people know the tune “O Fortuna”. It is used a lot in advertisements and as introduction to many classical radio broadcasts. The song has a haunting quality to it, and it is because of our interest to hear it live that we got tickets for this concert.

Given that the work consists of 24 poems from medieval times, we expected it would be the entire concert. We were a bit surprised that it was to be preceded by a first half of five different works. Instead of suffering through them, I found I enjoyed them. As I said in an earlier blog, the National Chorale suffers from lack of projected (or printed, for that matter) words, so I had to go with just the titles of the works. This task was made a bit more difficult since the songs were not performed in the order listed in the program! Some singers in the Chorale sang the solo parts, and they were quite good. The Chorale as a whole still needs some work, especially in being together.

Per the program notes, there are two versions of Carmina Burana, one with a full orchestra and a large choir, the other with two pianos, timpani, and various percussion instruments. We were hoping for the large orchestra version but didn’t get it. I have to say the small ensemble worked quite well with the 46-person chorale (and three soloist), though.

The conductor Martin Josman was much more energetic than what I remember from the last two performances. The invited soloists were however not all that good. Perhaps partially due to the falsetto parts written for the male soloists – not exactly my cup of tea. There is a bit of “acting” involved - walking, holding hands, embracing – but not quite a story. Given the premise of a priest, a young man, and a young woman, one could easily spin a story together, even it might not have been the composer’s original intention. Just to illustrate, the five parts are (i) Fortune, Empress of the World, (ii) In Springtime, (iii) In the tavern, (iv) the court of love, and (v) untitled, but consists of songs like “Should I choose love or chastity?”.

Orff considered this work his real first composition and had all his prior work destroyed. It is ironic that most people know only this work of his.

The entire concert was a bit long, ending at about 10:10 pm. Because of where we parked, we made it home in good time.

I wouldn’t have guessed I would end up enjoying a bunch of songs from the 20th century (1916 to 1977); let’s be frank, from any century, since I am not a song person. I ended up enjoying the evening, perhaps the show exceeded my modest expectations.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Riccardo Muti, Conductor; Mitsuko Uchida, Piano. April 18, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat Y8, $54).

Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31) by Ravel (1875-1937)
Symphony in C manor, D. 944, Great (1825-26) by Schubert (1797-1828)

The traffic reports said all the Hudson crossings were experiencing substantial delays. But we all supported the decision that we could probably made it in good time going through Jersey City. That turned out to be a mistake as we were stuck in traffic for at least 90 minutes; it took forever to make the left turn onto Marin from Columbus. Good thing I wasn't driving; I would have either gotten mad or very frustrated. We naturally missed the Ravel piece played by Uchida. It was a good thing we all went to the parking garage together; we barely made the second half, the Ravel piece being quite short at (an advertised) 21 minutes.

The Schubert “Great” Symphony is quite long at about 50 minutes. The program notes was mostly used to explain why this Symphony was really the seventh by Schumann. It is amazing that this is catalogued as D. 944, given the short life (31 years) of the composer.

Riccardo Muti was the guest conductor. I have seen him a few times before, and tonight he was quite a bit more animated than his “usual.” He would crouch down very low and slowly raise himself, perhaps not the most demanding physically, but still impressive for a 68 year old person.

I am not familiar with the Symphony (only Schubert one I know well is the “Unfinished"). This one is quite enjoyable. A bit long at 50 minutes, and there were several themes that were used quite extensively. The four movements of the Symphony are (i) Andante – Allegro ma non troppo; (ii) Andante con moto; (iii) Scherzo. Allegro vivace – Trio; and (iv) Finale. Allegro vivace. The program notes does point out a motif that is quite close to the very well-known one in Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. This is used quite extensively in the fourth movement. I find the concept of such borrowing fascinating.

Afterwards, Chung Shu, Shirley, and we went to Sushi A-Go-Go to have a simple dinner before we headed home. Traffic was still on the heavy side but there were no congestions. We got home at about midnight.

The New York Times reviewer thought very highly of the Uchida performance. He calls the Symphony Schumann's Ninth, perhaps to make a point? In any case, too bad we missed the first part, and our seats were great this time.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

New York Philharmonic - Charles Dutoit, conductor; Lisa Batiashvili, violin. April 4, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 4 Rear (Seat RR111, $67).

Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra, Dumbarton Oaks (1937-38) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 (1935) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).

We got tickets to this concert in exchange for one we booked but couldn’t go. I didn’t have high expectations of neither Dutoit nor Batisahvili. I have seen both before (Dutoit quite a few times) and haven’t come away very impressed. Tonight was an exception.

We had heard the Stravinsky work (Dumbarton Oaks) before in 2006; it was conducted by David Robertson. I reread my writeup on the performance; most of what I wrote still holds today. I seem to enjoy tonight’s concert a bit more, though. Dutoit has this habit of swinging slightly to the beat, which I find annoying. But it seems to work with the small ensemble.

I have known Prokofiev’s second violin concerto since I was a teenager. My violin teacher played that as part of his examination to qualify at the “performer” level at the Trinity College of Music in London. This was in the 1970s, and one can imagine how avant garde the piece sounded then. But I got to know it and enjoy it. My view of Batisahvili changed after I heard she play the simple introduction. First, the violin sounded very well, even though we sat at the rear of the orchestra (second to last row). Indeed it is a Stradivarius (the 1709 "Engleman") on loan to her. She played the piece beautifully for the most part, although there were some passages where the (full) orchestra was a bit overwhelming. This second concerto sounded much more grounded than the first Prokofiev concerto, which we heard Midori play a few years back. The three movements are: Allegro moderato; Andante assai – Allegretto – Tempo I; and Allegro ben marcato.

I do have several of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies on my iPod, including this one, but I have to say – except for the second movement – I am not that familiar with the piece. The program notes contains a description of the theme described as “fate trying to get out” (whatever that means) that is reused in all the movement, often in different modes, and sometimes a bit contrived. (Who am I to criticize Tchaikovsky?) This is a rather long symphony at 45 minutes, but is most enjoyable. It is interesting (per program notes) that Tchaikovsky had doubts about the piece after conducting the first few performances of the new work, and that he wasn’t considered a very skilled conductor. It is a bit sentimental, but that is Russian music for you, in my opinion. The four movements are: (i) Andante – Allegro con anima; (ii) Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza; (iii) Valse: Allegro moderato; and (iv) Finale: Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace – Moderato assai e molto maestoso.

There were quite a few young people in the attendance, the concert was close to being sold out. All in all it was very enjoyable.

The New York Times reviewer liked the Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky pieces, but didn't particularly care for Stravinsky.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Metropolitan Opera - Dvorak's Rusalka, March 14, 2009.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Dress Circle Seat D106 ($126.50).

Story. The water nymph Rusalka falls in love with a human prince, and asks the witch Yezhibaba to change her into a human being so they can be together. The witch agrees but warns her that she will be mute and her lover will die if he falls in love with another person. Although the prince and Rusalka do fall in love, the prince eventually marries a princess who has been pursuing him. The prince wants to go back to Rusalka, they kiss and the prince dies. Rusalka sinks back into the deep waters.

Conductor - Jiri Belohlavek; Water Gnome - Kristinn Sigmundsson, Rusulka - Renee Fleming, Jezibaba - Stephanie Blythe, The Prince - Aleksandrs Antonenko; The Foreign Princess - Christine Goerke.

One of the lesser known facts about Dvorak is that he was as prolific a composer of operas as he is of symphonies: he wrote 9 each during his lifetime. Since operas are usually much longer than symphonies (2 hours versus 45 minutes), he probably spent more time doing the former. Until today I had not seen any of his operas. Rusalka supposedly is one of the more famous ones and is considered a national treasure in the Czech Republic (I wonder how Slovakia feels about it.)

With a conductor born in Prague, and Renee Fleming singing the lead role, this should turn out to be a great opera to watch. However, I was a bit disappointed.

Our seats were reasonable: dress circle, just about the center. The staging was nice and appropriate. Whatever they did to make the “lake” made it look quite real, at least from where we were seated. My only real complaint would be that the lighting was too dim for those of us without the keenest of eyesights. The music was pleasant. The program notes devote several pages to describe how the simpler melodies are mixed in with more complicated passages to paint the different characters and scenes. Probably true, but it is not obvious upon the first hearing. Surprisingly, I have faint knowledge of only one melody (orchestra), the “famous” “Song to the Moon” was completely new to me. Dvorak usually incorporates some folksy tunes in his work, as I type this (inn a plane to Hong Kong) I don't remember any tune that is particularly memorable, though.

Renee Fleming's performance was not as great as I expected. This must be the fourth opera I saw in recent years where she played the lead role (Violetta in La Traviata, Desdemona in Otello, and Thais) and I was impressed with my previous encounters. Today, however, her voice didn't carry as well and sounded surprisingly weak. There were impressive episodes now and then, but the overall performance seemed spotty. Indeed the witch, played by Stephanie Blythe, did much better in my opinion.

The story was a bit too “childish” and too straightforward. It reminds me of one of Andersen's Fables (indeed the Little Mermaid is quite similar, I am told). The only twist is that prince dies when he abandons Rusalka. Usually it is the heroine that dies, although in this case her ultimate fate is not resolved.

The orchestra played well, with crisp lines. The harpist was quite busy describing the shimmering water. The animals at the witch's brewing scene elicited a few laughs from the audience.

That the opera is in Czech adds a degree of exoticism to it. However, with subtitles it could be in Italian, French, or even English! I did learn the word “Yeda” means “alas”, though.

All said, however, this is not a bad opera to see. Except my expectations were very high. I postponed my trip to Hong Kong so I wouldn't miss this episode, after all.

I have not been able to locate a review of the current performance. A New York Times review of a 2004 performance gave high marks to Renee Fleming. The reviewer thought she did well even during the time she was mute and didn't sing.

[Note added 4/6/09] I managed to find the New York Times review of the current performance. The reviewer thought highly of the performance, but was non-plused as to why the audience wasn't more enthusiastic. A case of the masses must be properly educated?

Monday, February 09, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Kurt Mazur, conductor; Anne-Sophie Mutter; Vocal Soloists; Westminster Symphonic Choir. February 7, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat CC16, $59)

All-Mendelssohn (1809-47) Program
Overture to Ruy Blas, Op. 95 (1839).
Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64 (1844).
Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night), Op. 60 (1830-32, rev. 1844)

First, the specifics. I couldn't put all the soloists' names in the title, so for completeness: Christine Knorren, mezzo-soprano; Jorma Silvasti, tenor; Albert Dohmen, bass-baritone; Thorsten Grumbel, bass; Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller, director. With regard to the music, the violin concerto consists of three movements played without pause: Allegro molto appassionato; Andante; Allegretto ma non troppo – Allegro molto vivace. The choral piece has many parts:

Overture: Bad Weather (Allegro con fuoco)
The Transition to Spring (Allegro vivace non troppo)
1. Allegro vivace non troppo; Allegro assai vivace (tenor and chorus)
2. Allegretto non troppo (mezzo-soprano and chorus)
3. Andante maestoso (bass-baritone and chorus)
4. Allegro leggier (chorus)
5. Recitative: Allegro moderato (bass and chorus)
6. Allegro molto (chorus)
7. L’istesso tempo – Andante maestoso (bass-baritone and chorus)
8. Allegro non troppo (tenor and chorus)
9. Andante maestoso (bass-baritone and chorus)

We went to the concert together with the Yangs. We first stopped by Jersey City and had noodles at a Vietnamese restaurant: pretty inexpensive fare which Anne found quite enjoyable.

I didn’t realize Mendelssohn was considered a genius on par with Mozart, and that he died at an early age of 37 or so. Equally tragic was that his sister Fanny died while conducting a rehearsal of the “Night” piece played at tonight’s concert.

Mendelssohn, by choice, wrote classical music in the tradition of the masters, and his music is thus quite easy to understand and appreciate (as opposed to, say, Berlioz). Tonight’s selection is no exception. The overture is to a story by Goethe that is rather bleak, although I honestly wouldn’t be able to tell by listening to it. The orchestra was not at its full strength (actually for the entire program tonight), perhaps some people left early to get a head start on their tour next week?

I was surprised at how weak Mutter’s violin sounded. It was as if the instrument was muted. Which is a pity, as Mutter played the piece quite well. She did have some unusual tempos for some passages, which I though was not necessary: there being no need to find new interpretations for the piece. Per Wikipedia, she owns 2 Stradivarius violins, I wonder if she used one of those for tonight?

It is a bit disappointing that the “Night” piece was chosen as the last piece for the evening. I am sure one could have picked a more fulfilling Mendelssohn piece. That it isn’t that popular is attested by the fact that the last time it was played at NY Philharmonic was in 1997, also conducted by Mazur. Nevertheless, it was a reasonable enjoyable piece of music, with lyrics based on another Goethe work. The choir, from Rider College in Princeton, was 120-member strong, and they sang quite well.

Mazur, in his early 80s, looked quite well, except for the shaking in his hands, which we also noticed at the last concert of his we saw.

Overall, an enjoyable concert. I couldn't find a published review of the concert.