Thursday, December 10, 2009

New York Philharmonic – Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; David Fray, piano. December 4, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat BB13, $59).

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, BB114 (1936) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31) by Ravel (1876-1937).
La Mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques (The Sea: Three Symphonic Sketches) (1903-05; rev. 1910) by Debussy (1862-1918).

I usually enjoy Bartok’s music, so I was looking at today’s performance with some anticipation. The Program Notes talks about Bartok’s meticulous instructions on how the orchestra should be organized, and that there are to be two separate string sections; this only adds to the intrigue. Indeed Dicterow and Maples are seated on opposite ends of the stage. I am sure there are more string players than usual (although I didn’t do a count.)

This is a piece written for strings, percussion, and celesta. There is also a piano on board. Given the relative sizes of the instruments, and the frequency at which the piano came in, I am surprised it didn’t get equal billing.

The music is in four movements, basically slow-fast-slow-fast. [Andante tranquillo; Allegro; Adagio; Allegro molto.] The slow sections sounded very flat, the fast sections were much more exciting. Not too many melodies (even for Bartok) to speak of. There were several passages that had considerable flourish, but didn’t quite make up for the overall lack of excitement.

We had a chance to hear Ravel’s Concerto several months ago, played by Uchida with Muti conducting. But we were caught in traffic in Jersey City and missed the first part of the concert. Given how recently we heard the Debussy piece (later in the program), there is this distinct feeling that the New York Philharmonic is recycling its program at an alarming pace. Say it ain’t so.

Anyway, David Fray is a young French pianist (not quite 30 years old) that somehow got to be a rather hot commodity. The Program Notes didn’t talk about any major competitions that he won, or he had a breakthrough performance as a last minute substitute. So it is a bit surprising how he got to be part of the subscription series. Interestingly, he used a “regular” chair with a back, rather than one of these leather-clad piano benches. Too young to have a weak back, and his arms don’t look that long that he can do the whole keyboard sitting in place.

The first movement (Allegramente) starts with the piano accompanying the orchestra by a lot of glissandos, which is quite pleasing to the ear. Nonetheless, it didn’t generate the excitement one would get from (say) Lang Lang playing a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto. Interestingly, the Basque theme at the beginning of the movement sounded very oriental to me. The second movement (Adagio assai) has the English Horn playing a rather long duet with the soloist. And there are a lot of hand crossovers that make both for an interesting sight and an interesting sound. The third movement (Presto) is again fast, and Fray manages to play the entire chromatic range without leaving his chair.

Ravel himself was a pianist, and he wanted to retract his dedication of the piece to Marguerite Long so he could do the premiere himself. At the end, Long performed the premiere because of Ravel’s health and scheduling issues (not enough time to practice his own composition, evidently.) The Program Notes also say Ravel started Conservatory as a piano student but was asked to withdraw because he wasn’t deemed to have enough panache to be an outstanding concert pianist. I am being harsh here, but these words seem to describe David Fray quite well. His technique and sound seem very good, but somehow one doesn’t get much spirit from the performance.

By some account Lar Mer is one of Debussy’s two best know orchestral compositions. The other one is The Fawn Afternoon which we heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra play last week in Symphony Hall. I heard La Mer at New York Philharmonic not too long ago, and had to admit that I couldn’t quite make heads or tails from it. Today it was much better though. Although I don’t think the composition evokes the sea as much as Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (the overture is still one of the best seascapes I have heard), one can definitely tell how the music is painting the pictures.

The three sketches are: From Dawn till Noon on the Sea; Play of the Waves; and Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea.

When I lived in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, Salonen was the conductor of Los Angeles Symphony, so I am sure I heard him conduct several times, although I don’t remember any particular concert. We had a chance to hear him a couple of years ago but he had to withdraw because of health reasons. Today’s performance was overall a bit flat for me. The applause from the audience, enthusiastic at times, wasn’t sustained.

It was basically a simple trip for us to make via New Jersey Transit. Today still turns out to be a full day as we had to catch a 6:15 pm flight to San Francisco. I am actually en-route as I type (most of) this review.

The New York Times reviewer loved the conductor and the solosist. Actually it is one of the least negative reviews (not quite the same as the most positive) I have read in that paper.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Metropolitan Opera – Puccini’s Il Trittico. December 1, 2009.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Grand Tier Seat G13 ($102.50).

Story – Il Tabarro. Setting: Paris 1927. After their son dies, Giorgetta grows apart from her husband Michele and has an affair with Luigi. When Luigi rushes to the barge, mistakenly thinking it is a signal from Giorgetta, Michele kills him. When Giorgetta comes on deck of the barge, Michele reveals the dead body to her.
Story – Suor Angelica. Setting: Tuscany 1938. Angelica is banished by her family to a convent after she gave birth to an illegitimate child. After seven years, her aunt comes to visit to settle the estate of Angelica’s parents. She also tells Angelica that her son died two years ago. Angelica, overcome with grief, commits suicide. After she ingests the poison, she prays that her mortal sin be forgiven. Her child welcomes her to heaven.
Story – Gianni Schicchi. Setting: Florence 1959. The wealthy Buoso Donati dies and his relatives retains Schicchi to try to get at the inheritance. Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta is in love with Rinuccio, one of the relatives. Schicchi pretends to be the dead man and has the will rewritten, in the process also benefitting himself.

Conductor – Stefano Ranzani.
Cast Il Tabarro: Giorgetta – Patricia Racette, Michele – Reljko Lucic, Luigi – Aleksandrs Antonenko.
Cast Suor Angelica: Angelica – Patricia Racette, The Princess – Stephanie Blythe.
Cast Gianni Schicchi: Zita – Stephanie Blythe, Rinuccio – Saimir Pirgu, Gianni Schicchi – Alessandro Corbelli, Lauretta – Patricia Racette.

It took me a while to realize that Il Trittico has something to do with the number “three”. Indeed tonight’s performance comprises of three one-hour one-act operas with half-hour intermissions in between.

Patricia Racette, whom we see for the first time, sings in all three operas. This, per the Program Notes, isn’t done all that often. That may explain why the intermissions are that long as she probably needs the time to rest her voice. Not being a singer, I don’t know how difficult the singing roles are. Certainly she does a lot of it during Suor Angelica. Her role in Gianni Schicchi is quite limited, though, even though she has one of the most famous arias in opera: the short “O mio babbino caro.” I am sure Isolde’s role is much more demanding. Nonetheless, she manages to fill the roles well.

Stephanie Blythe, a mezzo-soprano, whom we have seen quite a few times (recently in Rusalka and the Ring cycle), did an excellent job. She has a great voice but is usually limited to secondary roles, undoubtedly due to her voice range and her weight. One wonders how far she could go if she shed some weight.

Somehow all the women singers are American-born while the men singers, and the conductor, are Europeans, many from Eastern Europe. I wonder whether that reflects on the state of American Opera talent.

The sets are all quite impressive. With Il Tabarro it is a large barge on the River Seine; the setting for Suor Angelica is the courtyard of a convent; for Gianni Schicchi it is the bedroom of Buoso Donati. From where we were sitting, they looked extremely well-done with great details. I find how the crest on the wall of the convent very interesting: it morphs from a painting to a three-dimensional statue. Towards the end of Gianni Schicchi, the entire bedroom drops to reveal a garden overlooking Florence. While it is quite impressive, one wonders if it is too much for the last several minutes of the program.

The Program Notes says that many consider Suor Angelica the weakest of the three operas. The story, however, is most compelling. Gianni Schicchi is a comedy, and is one of the few that works for me. Even though we know how the story is going to end, the acting still makes it funny to watch. Despite the Program Notes claim that the three operas together will give the audience a unique experience, I am not sure how.

Puccini died in 1924, and all these operas have settings that are dated after his death. I wonder why; and the Program Notes doesn’t seem to mention it. Out of the three hours of performance, there is only one aria that is easily singable, which is a pity in my opinion. There are some very atonal passages that I wonder if the singers are at the correct pitch. The applause during and after the show is surprising reserved; the fact that the show concluded close to midnight definitedly contributed. Also, there were quite a few empty seats. Perhaps weekdays crowds are different?

We were a little worried about driving into the city during the holiday period. The traffic reports were not encouraging. We left a little after 5 (for an 8 pm start), taking the Holland Tunnel. It wasn’t too bad, and the trip home was quick – we got home at 12:45 am.

The New York Times review is quite favorable. The reviewer also thinks Racette resonates well with Angelica.