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.