Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Pinchas Zukerman, violin. January 16, 2009

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 3 (Seat GG19, $74)

Violin Concerto, Op. 30 (2001-02) by Oliver Knussen (b. 1952).
Symphony No. 5 (1901-02) by Mahler (1860-1911).

I went by myself to today’s concert mostly because of all the hype about Dudamel and wanted to see for myself what this new phenomenon is like. I think he is 27 years old, and has been named the music director of the LA Philharmonic in the coming season. I have read reviews saying he is barely 5’ tall, and spends most of the time in the air (i.e., jumping around on the podium).

To me, it’s a waste to have someone like Zukerman play a piece of work like Knussen’s violin concerto. The composer describes this work as walking on a tight rope. The opening and the closing motif (if it can be called that) is bells in the orchestra and harmonics from the soloist. And that’s about as close to a tight rope as I can imagine, not having been on one myself. Zukerman needed the music and was (alas) glued to it. Actually the whole performance looked like has was practicing the piece for a concert; although I have to say he was ready for the concert, given how technically well he played it. Unfortunately, it was played without much emotion. The violin, a Guarnerius, sounded smooth. However, it’s no match for the orchestra, confirming my opinion that a Guarnerius is more suitable for chamber music (or a chamber orchestra). The three movements (Recitative, Aria, and Gigue) are distinct enough even though the piece is played without pause.

My opinion on Dudamel after this concerto was that he is quite precise, and he spends a lot of time on the balls of his feet, rather than in the air. And he is quite a bit taller than 5’. I was in no position to say whether he led a good performance, though. He reminds me of Zhang Xian, NY Phil’s associate conductor. She is short (shorter than Dudamel appears, even with heels), and jumps around the podium.

I enjoy Mahler’s symphonies, especially the fifth ever since I played it while I was in college many years ago. I didn’t know people divided the five movments into three parts. Part I consists of (i) Funeral March: With measured step. Strict. Like a cortege; and (ii) Stormily. With greatest vehemence. Part II is “Scherzo: Vigorously, not too fast.” Part III is another two movements: (iv) Adagietto: Very slow; and (v) Rondo-Finale: Allegro giocoso. Lively. Interestingly the tempo markings (if you can call it that) are in English; past NY Phil notes had them in German.

The introduction by the brass was a bit louder than most performances I have heard before. Usually it sounded distant with gradually increasing volume; not with Dudamel, though. Other than that, I have no quibble with this most enjoyable performance. On top of that, he did the 75 minute piece from memory. One of those days some intrepid soul will try to abridge the Mahler symphonies (and the ones by others such as Bruckner) as they tend to be way too long. The two young people in front of me fell asleep and their parents kept trying to wake them up. With Mahler, it may be a bit tough as he simply moves from theme to theme without a lot of repetition. And the parts he chooses to repeat are some of the most pleasant ones in his work. In any case, this is a sad symphony, which Mahler described as “the sum of all the suffering I have been compelled to endure at the hands of life.”

I, for one, came away very impressed. The applause at the end wasn’t as prolonged as I expected, although a lot of people jumped up right afterwards. Sometimes hype is hype, sometimes hype is well-deserved.

The New York Times reviewer was very enthusiastic also. He heard only the Mahler piece.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Ludovic Morlot, conductor; Olli Mustonen, Piano. January 10, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 4 Rear (Seat JJ4, $58)

Gondwana (1980; U.S. Premiere) by Tristan Murail (b. 1947).
Piano Concerto in F major, K. 413/387a (1782-83) by Mozart (1756-91).
Oiseaux exotiques, for Solo Piano and Small Orchestra (1955-56) by Messiaen (1908-92).
La Mer: Trois esquisees symphoniques (The Sea: Three Symphonic Sketches; 1903-05, rev. 1910) by Debussy (1862-1918).

Morlot burst onto the scene in early 2006 as a last-minute stand-in for Christoph von Dohnanyi, and he got good reviews. This is now compared to the “Lenny moment” when Bernstein, at age 25, substituted for Bruno Walter. Morlot was a bit older at 32 (he is now 34), and the piece that was particularly outstanding was a piece by Elliot Carter. We actually attended that particular concert series (on March 4, 2006); I thought Morlot was okay, but didn’t have much to say about Carter’s piece.

Now Morlot has graduated to conducting a regular subscription series; he remains BSO’s assistant conductor. Today’s program was interesting in that one wonders why the Austrian Mozart would appear between three rather modern pieces by French composers. The program notes talks about how a concert program is arrived at, but it still doesn’t explain the weird juxtaposition of the pieces. Another aspect was the massive movements of seats between pieces which took up a lot of time, despite the efficiency of the black-tie staff.

Gondwana is the southern portion of Pangaea, the supercontinent some believe existed 250 million years ago that eventually broke up into today’s continents. Perhaps Mr. Murail had visions of what this looked like, because I have no idea why he thinks the music would represent this land at all. He is well-known for spectral music, which just sounded limited in range and monotonous to me. His use of ¼ tones reminds me of a piece I played at Cornell (“The apotheosis of the earth” by Karel Husa, I think; there we didn’t have to count precisely) which I found confusing even while I was performing on stage (at Carnegie Hall, by the way). Perhaps that’s the whole idea. The piece was first performed tonight in the US, nearly 40 years after it was composed. With any luck it won’t be played for another 40 years, and that would be okay. Alas, Murail now teaches at Columbia, so there may be no escape! He made a curtain call after the performance.

Morlot was very precise in his conducting. One could see clearly whether a particular measure contained 2, 3, or 4 beats. And the pattern continued with the rest of the program.

I wasn’t very familiar with this particular Mozart concerto. It is in three movements: Allegro; Larghetto; and Tempo di Menuetto. Cadenzas for the first and second movements were written by Mozart himself. Mozart evidently had some trouble selling it when it was completed.

Olli Mustonen, who conducts, performs, and composes (!), has a very unique style which is either brilliant or affected, I can’t decide. The Mozart sounded more disjoint (or spirited, depends on one’s view) than most Mozarts I have heard. There were parts I really enjoyed, and there were sections I felt a bit embarrassed about. Another first was he had the music in front of him. I can understand if he was a last-minute stand-in, but supposedly “they” started the decision process a couple of years ago.

I knew of Messiaen, but don't remember hearing any of his music. The small orchestra consisted of about 15 players, no strings, and a huge gong that sometimes took 2 people to mute. Mustonen did a brilliant job in this instance, pounding out the rapid passages with ease. Supposedly there are different colors and bird songs in the piece; I don’t have perfect pitch (color) and have limited knowledge of ornithology (birds), so most of it just flew over my head. Nonetheless the activities on stage were quite interesting to see.

We actually heard the most recent NY Philharmonic performance of La Mer conducted by David Robertson, and I had a so-so review of the piece. It was much more enjoyable this time though. Whether it is the conductor, or Debussy sounded down-right traditional compared to Murail and Messiaen, I don’t know. To be fair to Morlot, Robertson’s program was quite contemporary also.

Our seats were in the back of the orchestra section. They had a good view of the orchestra, and the acoustics was quite good. They are among the least expensive of seats, go figure.

Strangely enough, I actually quite enjoyed the concert. The New York Times review opens with a couple of paragraphs of high praise that's not quite supported by the rest of the generally narrow-in-scope article. The reviewer describes Mustonen's performance as "quirky."

Heavy snow was forecast for tonight. When it looked okay at around 5 pm, we decided to drive into the city. Turns out to be a good decision: we zipped in and out of town without any trouble. The water heater in our house broke, so we stopped by Ellie and Kuau’s place after the concert to take a hot shower. And there was no more than 1/2 " of snow on the ground.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Metropolitan Opera – Massenet’s Thais, January 5, 2009.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Orchestra, Seat CC36 ($71.50).

Story. The monk Athanael wants to convert Thais, goddess of Venus in Alexandria, to Christianity. He visits his friend Nicias who has purchased the services of Thais and meets with Thais. After an all-night struggle, Thais decides to abandon her old ways. She burns down her house, including the statute Eros – a symbol of love – and joins a convent. During her 3-month stay at the convent, she leads a completely saintly life and her body is at the end of her strength. Meanwhile, Athanael finds himself in love with Thais and renounces his faith so he can be with her. When he gets to the convent, Thais dies.

Conductor – Jesus Lopez-Cobos; Thais – Renee Fleming, Athanael – Thomas Hampson, Palemon – Alain Vernhes, Nicias – Michael Schade.

The violin solo “Meditation” is a popular piece played by aspiring violinists. It is a nice melody and is relatively easy to play (perhaps even well). I have know “Thais” since I was a teenager, but had no idea what the opera was about.

We came back from Florida this morning, waking up at 4:30 am to catch an early flight. The opera was enjoyable enough that I had no trouble staying awake, although by the time we got home it was past midnight. To be fair, I did nap for an hour or so in the afternoon.

The story is quite simple, actually I thought some scenes were a bit long for what they want to accomplish. An example would be the time it took for Athanael to dress properly for the evening at Nicias’ house. The music was pleasant enough that for most part I didn’t mind.

The singing was excellent by all the principals. Actually the supporting cast did very well also. Renee Fleming, as usual, was exquisite. She did have trouble with one note (that I noticed), though. I don’t know how high she had to reach, but you can tell she wanted to make sure she got the note before stressing it. I imagine she is at the peak of her career at this point. The male protagonist is one of those rare baritone roles, and Hampson did it very well.

There were many scene changes, with a couple of pauses between scenes in Acts 1 and 3. Meditation was played between the scenes in Act 2. There was tremendous applause which I found puzzling. I am sure the soloist (John Chan, the concertmaster) is a great musician, but I certainly don’t think the applause, especially compared to that gotten by the singers, was warranted. Interestingly, the theme is reused many times after its introduction, and Fleming sang some of those parts. She was a bit weak at the low registers.

The program notes describes how the music for Athanael changes from nice to disjointed as he falls from grace, and cites that as an example of how great the opera is. Indeed that is true, but I would suggest instead of reading too much into the opera, one should just enjoy it as a pleasant work with good drama and great music. This is somewhat like Mendelssohn’s violin concerto: enjoy it, don’t analyze it.

There must be something about French opera composers that make them include a dance number in their works. There is one here, and of course there are dances in Saint-Saen’s Samson & Delilah and Bizet’s Carmen.

The program notes also talks about the new production, and how the clothes were designed by Christian Lacroix to match the occasion. I think it is a bit over the top.

A few anachronistic instances of note. The guard had a gun, I’m sure it wasn’t around during the 4th century AD. Also, Nicias threw out paper money to distract the crowd so Thais and Athanael could escape. I’m sure they didn’t use paper money then, either.

One note about the seat. We were in the orchestra section, towards the rear. The acoustics were a bit funny at the edge of the section: probably due to the overhang of the boxes above the seats. In Act 3 we managed to move a bit closer to the center, and the acoustics were much better just 2 seats over.

I am glad we went. The New York Times reviewer has a view very similar to mine, except the writer did a much better job writing.