Tuesday, October 06, 2009

New York Philharmonic - Alan Gilbert, conductor; Emmanuel Ax, piano. October 3, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat CC9, $61).

EXPO (2009) by Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958).
Symphony No. 2 (ca. 1900-02?; rev. ca. 1907-10) by Ives (1874-1954).
The Unanswered Question (1906 - ca. 1941) by Ives.
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

We went to this concert with Chung Shu and Shirley. Ate at Josephina's at Lincoln Square, reasonably good food (I had the scallops) but a bit slow; we had only time for the main course.

The piece by Lindberg was commissioned by New York Philharmonic. The piece is about 9 minutes long, and the program notes took longer than that to read. Lindberg is a Finnish composer, a contemporary of Esa-Pekka Salonen, and can trace his academic lineage to Sibelius. Supposedly he went through a phase of writing very complex music but now is back to "simpler" music. Gilbert and he had a 10- or so minute dialog at the beginning demonstrating what harmony and melody meant in the Lindberg context. Frankly it was a bit uninteresting despite being different from the first two concerts as Gilbert didn't want to rest on his laurels. I suspect he hasn't quite found his groove in this opening dialog business yet. In any case, the piece didn't sound too complicated, nor was it memorable. There were - as advertised - many tempo changes.

I don't recall having heard any of Charles Ives' work before. And I suspect in short order I will forget that I have ever heard him either. I guess he was an "all-American" composer, went to Yale, was a successful insurance agent, and had so much reservations about his own work in that he would eventually break his promise about going to the premiere performance of his Second Symphony even though it was played by the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein conducting in Carnegie Hall. It also explains why the dates of his composition are so uncertain since he often put his work-in-progress aside for a long time.

The Symphony has five tempo markings: Andante moderato; Allegro; Adagio cantabile; Lento (maestoso); and Allegro molto vivace. However, I could sense only two distinct breaks in the 35 minute work. The first movement started melodically and gently, but spent most of the next 20 or so minutes drifting. During the last 15 or so seconds the music came to life, but it wasn't enough to salvage the performance to that point. Uncharacteristically the audience applauded: not your oops I goofed type applause but a rather sustained one. The second section was a bit more interesting. The third section contains a lot of borrowed tunes. Chung Shu said it sounded very Americana, I just found it pedestrian. The program notes claim that Ives didn't think much of his contemporaries, describing Stravinsky's The Firebird as "morbid and monotonous," and Ravel's music as "of a kind I cannot stand: weak, morbid, and monotonous; pleasing enough, if you want to be pleased." I am sure I am not the first one to remark many probably find Ives' work also "pleasing enough, if you want to be pleased."

We were a bit puzzled after the intermission. The piano was already set up, the full orchestra was there despite The Unanswered Question has a score that calls for four flutes, a trumpet, and strings. And to add to the confusion, Emmanuel Ax came out at the outset!

Anyway, what they did was play the Ives piece immediately followed by the Beethoven piece, with bridging done with a short downward scale. The Question was short at about 6 minutes and somewhat interesting. I am not sure what the question was, perhaps the meaning of life? I didn't notice that the trumpet and flutes were in the balcony - Anne noticed it.

There are a few things about Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 that's worth recording. It began with several cords played by the piano, followed by the orchestra's response in B major, which was ahead of its time. Some think the concerto follows the story line of an Orpheus legend, with the second movement describing Orpheus's using music to tame wild beasts.

Ax's performance tonight was flawless. He put together an architectural masterpiece, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. The runs were spotless, the melodies were well executed, the cooperation was the orchestra was seamless, the harmonies were exquisite. I admired how he played last time I heard him (even with a few mistakes), that admiration grew even more today. I do think the cadenzas (by Beethoven) were a bit on the long side, though.

Gilbert is still a bit of an unknown to me after these two concerts. The selection of Lindberg and Ives was a bit too eclectic for me. The Beethoven concerto began well enough, but the orchestra got a bit sloppy towards the end. And I really think if they want to teach the audience how to listen, do that in the program instead of during the concert.

It was an enjoyable concert on the strength of the Beethoven piece. The New York Times reviewer continues to adore Gilbert.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Brentano Quartet. October 1, 2009.

Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University. Balcony, Row 1, Center Left.

Mark Steinberg, violin; Serena Canin, violin; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Maria Lee, cello.

String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3 by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).
String Quartet in G major, D. 887 by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

This was again David's suggestion. Anne had a class on ESL teaching, so I went by myself. The group was David, Vivien, Peter, Melinda, Jim, and myself.

Tonight's attendance was not good at all. The balcony was only half full. We heard the same group at the same location on Oct 18, 2005, and the auditorium was full. So both concerts happened during the school year, I wonder why.

I remarked in the blog for the earlier concert that I wasn't a fan of the quartet. So I consciously tried to listen to the viola every now and then. It is a tiring endeavor: you need to concentrate, and you lose track of the other voices. Let's hope this improves with additional attempts.

Overall I enjoyed the concert. Perhaps it was my active listening, I found the balance between the instruments to be much better than I expected. Not that the first violin wasn't the domineering voice, it was just less so. And every now and then another voice (for tonight it was mostly the cello) would break out into the lead.

The Haydn quartet was written quite early in Haydn's career (Op. 20, when he was about 40 years old). The four movements are: Allegro con spirito; Menuet: Allegretto; Poco adagio; and Finale: Allegro di molto. The note on the piece (written by the violist Misha Amory). This was a relatively short quartet at about 30 minutes. David remarked that it was because they didn't do the repeats. I am not sure whether they did them or not. (They did they in 2005, according to the complaint in my blog.)

The Schubert quartet was a brilliant piece, requiring a lot technically from the players. On top of that they needed to appear as one harmonic group. I thought they did quite well in that regard, Peter thought the cello was hoarding the stage. However, there was confusion every now and then, and I am quite sure the first violin missed his notes and misbowed on a few occasions. I don't have much quarrel with the performance, though.

Mark Steinberg wrote the note on this piece, and (like the last one) it was quite long. He used Schubert writing ("My Dream") to illustrate the composition. What isn't clear to me was whether Schubert was referring to this particular quartet, or Steinberg was trying to fit the quartet into that sort of thinking. In any case, the thesis is that "love" and "pain" are not exclusive. Per Steinberg, there are many "issues" with the music that Schubert decided not to resolve, but instead the music just continued to go on. In that sense it illustrates life: settle, and move on. Interesting, even though it might be made up.

The four movements of this quartet are: Allegro molto moderato; Andante un poco mosso; Scherzo: Allegro vivace; and Allegro assai. The Scherzo and Trio were particularly interesting in the contrast between the two: the scherzo has the usual chaos while the trio is very calm.

This program was put out by the Department of Music of Princeton University.