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.