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.