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.