Wednesday, December 08, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Sir Colin Davis, Conductor. December 7, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat CC108, $65).

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-1802) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
Scherzo (Allegro)
Allegro molto

Twelve Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn; 1892-1901) by Mahler (1860-1911)
The Sentinel’s Nightsong (1892)
St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes (1893)
The Earthly Life (1892-93)
Solace in Misfortune (1892)
Song of the Persecuted in the Tower (1898)
Who Thought Up This Little Song? (1892)
Reveille (1899)
Little Rhine Legend (1893)
Praise from an Advanced Intellect (1896)
Labor Lost (1892)
The Drummer Boy (1901)
Where the Fair Trumpets Sound (1898)
Dorothea Roschmann, Soprano
Ian Bostridge, Tenor

There were still tickets available during the morning of the concert, so I was glad to see the auditorium reasonably filled when the program began (about 85% I’d say). It has been unusually cold these last few days, luckily we didn’t have to go outside to get to Avery Fisher Hall once we got on the train in South Amboy. The walk from the subway station to Avery Fisher is not air-conditioned, and it felt cold. Dinner was a quick bite at McDonald’s at Penn Station.

The Beethoven symphony was premiered together with the first, and sounded very early-Beethoven (stating the obvious here), with the exception of the last movement. It is not heard very often, although parts of it sounded familiar. Davis at 80+ had a good standing posture and conducted with visible energy, however, I found most of the movement not “con brio” enough. A reduced-size orchestra was used, perhaps to more conform with the practice of the period. The last movement was generally delightful, the orchestra sounded a bit rushed at times, though.

The poems of The Boy’s Magic Horn were written by Clemens Bretano and Achim von Arnim. Mahler incorporated some of the poems in his symphonies, and set some others to songs. The title gives no indication of what the individual poems are like; turns out some are comedic, some macabre, and some sad. Most of them are close to being tonal, quite easy to enjoy – not so easy to pick up, though.

The tenor has an interesting background: he was doing post-doctoral work in history when he decided to become a singer. Unfortunately, having a great intellect does not automatically make a singer great. He was simply overwhelmed by the orchestra and didn’t come through at all. It would work out better during periods the orchestra played softly, but I still had to strain to listen to him. The soprano’s voice projected much better.

I also noticed that Thomas Stacy's name is no longer on the orchestra's roster. A search of the web indicated that he retired as the orchestra's English Horn player in October. I find the situation curious, what with Qiang Tu vacating his endowed chair, the orchestra seems to be going through some changes.

The New York Times review is very much like mine, albeit written more professionally.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Joint Recital – Pinchas Zukerman, Violin; Yefim Bronfman, Piano. November 15, 2010.

Matthews Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton University (Front Balcony, Seat AA104, $58).

Sonata for Violin & Piano in B-flat Major, K. 454 by Mozart (1756-1791)
Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24 (“Spring”) by Beethoven (1770-1827)
Sonata in E-flat major for Viola and Piano, Op. 120, No. 2 by Brahms (1822-1897)

I am not a big fan of recitals, even though the violin is the instrument I play. To me recitals (and to a great extent chamber concerts) are too “simple;” they lack the more complex coordination required with a larger group. On the other hand, recitals are occasions the listener can simply sit back and enjoy without taxing one’s faculties. Tonight’s concert falls neatly into that category.

We got to Princeton at around 7 pm, enough time to have a couple of noodle dishes at Tiger Noodles. Anne wanted a spring roll also, which I thought would cut things a bit close. We made it to the Theatre in good time, though. The hall is quite nice, although our seats did not have that much leg room, being set against the “bulkhead.”

The violin sonatas are familiar to any violin student. Technically they are not demanding, and Zukerman certainly played well. Up close, his violin didn’t sound as smooth as I expected. On the other hand, he played with great confidence and authority. With Mozart and Beethoven violin sonatas, the pianist gets the bulk of the work out. Bronfman tackled the part with ease, but his part was played too softly for my taste. Also, the two musicians were too close to each other, with Zukerman standing in front of Bronfman. We were on the center right part of the theatre, and had a reasonable view, but I am sure people on the left of the theatre had their view of Bronfman blocked.

Interesting fact about the Mozart piece: Mozart was playing the piano with a lady playing the violin (usually the woman plays the piano.) Also, the score wasn’t ready yet so Mozart had blank sheets in front of him during the performance. Afterwards, Emperor Joseph II - who was in the audience - asked (playfully) to see the music.

The viola sonata sounded much more balanced in comparison. Perhaps it’s the natural timbre of the instrument that makes the sound less “shrill.” And the lower pitch of the viola certainly helped. As the Program Notes indicates, the virtuoso part of the relatively short piece.

The three movements of the Mazart sonata are Largo – Allegro, Andante, and Allegretto. Beethoven’s sonata has four (i) Allegro; (ii) Adagio molto espressivo; (iii) Scherzo: Allegro molto; and (iv) Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo. Brahms’s has three: (i) Allegro amabile; (ii) Allegro appassionato; and (iii) Andante con moto; Allegro.

This time Zukerman played a real encore – a piece by Schumann. It is rather simple, but as with the rest of the program, quite delightful.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Mendelssohn’s Elijah; Alan Gilbert, Conductor. November 11, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat DD113, $62.5)

Elijah, Oratorio on Words of the Old Testament, Op. 70 (1845-46, rev. 1847) by Mendelssohn (1809-47)

Twyla Robinson, Soprano; Alice Coote, Mezzo-Soprano; Allan Clayton, Tenor; Gerald Finley, Bass-Baritone; Jennifer Johnson, Mezzo-Soprano; Noah Sadik, Boy Soprano
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, Director

Because of schedule conflicts, we moved our date of the concert from Saturday (trip to New Hampshire) to Wednesday (Anne’s class) to Thursday, which we finally made. I am glad we went. There were quite a few empty seats in the auditorium, and WQXR and Goldstar were both advertizing seats (1/2 off for the latter) throughout the week.

The story is quite simple, describing how Elijah helped a widow, fought with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, hid in a cave and waited for God, and was finally taken up to heaven in a chariot. Most of the material was taken from I Kings, but Mendelssohn also used quite a few quotes from other books of the Old Testament – especially Psalm – and a couple from the New Testament. I am sure the story can be told equally compellingly by using I Kings only; but let’s not quibble.

From where we sat (we moved after the intermission to be closer to the exit) the sound was quite good. Oftentimes I find a singer difficult to hear because of the acoustics, but didn’t have much trouble this time. The singers all did okay, but not spectacular. Finley as Elijah had a relatively demanding role, and it showed when he sang the aria “Is not His word like a fire.” He seemed to recover after the intermission, though. It must be thrilling for a nine-year old boy to have billing in a New York Philharmonic Concert, and it is understandable that his voice was a bit unsteady. A contralto from the chorus also had a solo and quartet part, but her name isn’t mentioned in the program. Coote as the widow and Jezebel did the best.

I found the oratorio quite captivating even though the story of Elijah is a familiar one. This work has been compared with Messiah by Handel in style. Certainly true in the sense of narratives, recitatives, arias, and choruses. The Program Notes says the aria “Is not His word like a fire” (the one Finley somewhat botched) mimics Messiah’s “But Who May Abide.” Alas, I didn’t hear the parallel. Also, there are very few stand-alone melodies in this piece compared to Messiah. I was wondering if there were any until the second half: the first was the Trio “Lift thine eyes”, and the second was the solo “O rest in the Lord.” It was actually sung by Helen at our wedding! Of course when we picked the song we had no idea of the context in which it was written.

The New York Choral Artists, numbering about 60 people, did admirably. We left right after the conclusion of the concert and didn’t get to see Flummerfelt take his bow. Nonetheless we missed the train, which was okay as Anne had to take a conference call at 10:30 pm anyway.

The libretto in the original version was put together by Mendelssohn himself. For the English translation he asked for help (from William Bartholomew). The translation is so good that it is one of the best sounding English vocal compositions I have heard.

One final interesting fact from the Program Notes. Mendelssohn’s other oratorio St. Paul is “in the style” of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. One of those days I shall listen to those and compare. Also, I wonder how well this would work if it is staged as an opera.

The New York Times Review is surprising negative. It recalls how Mitropoulos did this in a semi-staged manner, and generally pans the singers (with a couple of exceptions.)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Edo de Waart, conductor; Chen Sa, piano. October 29, 2010.

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, Front Stalls (Seat L27, HK$320).

Program – All Schumann (1810-1856)
Manfred: Overture, Op. 115
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (First Version 1841)

We went with the Laws to this concert. We had dinner at the City Hall Restaurant (run by Maxim); surprisingly inexpensive, and surprisingly bland.

I am still amazed at how small the City Hall Concert Hall is, it has about 30 rows in the main section. The seats are reasonably comfortable though.

Hong Kong was called a “cultural desert” when I was growing up, by the number of empty seats in the hall today (by my estimation nearly 25% of seats were empty) the name still applies. This program will be repeated on Saturday, let’s hope the weekend brings in more people.

Overall this is a satisfying concert. I am not a fan of Schumann, and am not familiar with his music. It is generally quite romantic in sound, and the proximity of our seats to the stage made it sound quite intimate also.

The piano concerto begins with a soft introduction by the clarinet (or was it the oboe, I don’t remember). It was so tentative that I thought it was a cell phone ringing. The theme sounded very familiar, and most of the time the interplay between the soloist and the orchestra was good. Every now and then they seemed to be off doing their own thing, though. The three movements are (i) Allegro affettuoso; (ii) Intermezzo (Andantino grazioso); and (iii) Allegro vivace. The Program kept saying this concerto isn't a virtuoso piece, but it sounded virtuoso enough.

The pianist is from China, has taken fourth place in many competitions, and has played with many well-known orchestras (mostly in the US). She played a very romantic piece by Schumann while he was courting Clara. (From what I could tell.)

The Symphony was relatively short at an advertised 26 minutes (I think it was shorter than that.) The four movements are (i) Andante con moto; (ii) Romanza (Andante); (iii) Scherzo (Presto) – Trio; and (iv) Finale (Allegro vivace). They were played without pause. The first three movements were relatively short, and the last longer than expected. It was generally performed with spirit, although the fast passages sometimes felt a little rushed.

Generally a pleasant concert. Anne had trouble with her jet lag and busy few days, even the candy bought during intermission didn’t help her to stay fully awake.

We caught the #75 bus right next to City Hall back to the hotel; it didn’t take long at all.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Pinchas Zukerman, violin. October 16, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Orchestra 3 Center (Seat HH103, $60).

Passacaglia, Op. 1 (1908) by Webern (1883-1945).
Concerto in D manor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77 (1878-79) by Brhams (1833-97)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884-85) by Brahms.

It was interesting (to me) how I got to go to this concert. Anne and I had booked tickets to this as part of a “pick your own” series, but we exchanged the tickets for another concert since Anne was going to go to Los Angeles. I didn’t note down – and thus forgot – that the Yangs also had tickets to this event but was reminded that morning. Since I was looking for something to do, I decided to head up to NYC in the early afternoon to see if reasonably priced tickets were available. (A bit foolhardy on my part since there were only about 50 left that morning per When I got to Lincoln Center, I found out only tickets in the $100 and higher range were available, and I didn’t feel like paying that much. I decided to wait for the Yangs - did quite a bit of reading in the Rubinstein Atrium, had dinner with them (at Ollie’s), and then see if anyone was selling tickets at the last minute. Surprisingly, not too many. At about 7:40pm this gentleman offered two tickets for sale, he would part with one for $75, but accepted my offer of $60. The seat is quite good, and the ticket price says 0 (probably a comp). Turns out he sold the other one for $40; oh well …

Webern was Schoenberg’s other famous student and an important member of the Second Viennese School. Anne and I heard Berg’s Lyric Suite selections a few days ago, played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and I found it okay but not memorable. This particular composition by Webern (his Op. 1) was composed while he was still a student, and follows the “passacaglia” format (per Gilbert, a baroque musical form with a bass-line theme spun into different variations.) For the Webern piece there are 23 variations plus a coda. While I found the theme in and of itself rather uninspiring, at least I could follow (most of) the variations. In this instance Webern is more tonal than Berg, though not by much.

Zukerman was a major reason why I wanted to go to this concert. Overall it was a good performance, but not quite up to my expectations. At first there was this broken bow hair that seemed to bother Zukerman quite a bit, and the initial violin part was quite long so he couldn’t yank it out for a while. But he had quite a bit of intonation problem; could it be playing both the violin and the viola can cause some “muscle memory” problems? And the violin sounded out of tune (indeed he tuned it again after the first movement.) Most puzzling was the orchestra (especially the brass and woodwind) seemed to be tuned to a different pitch. Perhaps my hearing is deteriorating, in which case I shouldn’t be able to tell.

One pleasant surprise was I could distinctly hear the violin part for most of the performance. Perhaps it was the location of my seat, or it was the solo violin. The violin Zukerman plays is a Guarnerius and has a timbre very different from a Stradivarius. Warm and full rather than brilliant and soaring, usually considered more suitable for chamber music but worked very well in this instance.

After the undeserved multiple curtain calls evinced by the enthusiastic audience, Zukerman began playing Brahm’s Lullaby. One kept hoping he would launch into some virtuoso variations on the theme, but it was not to be; he just humored us with the good tone of his instrument and didn’t bother to complete the piece. I found that somewhat disrespectful on his part.

The Brahms Symphony is a familiar one. The beginning melody (descending thirds followed by ascending fifths) is relatively unremarkable as a tune but Brahms somehow managed to mold it into a very interesting movement. Interestingly I am very familiar with the first three movements (Allegro non troppo, Andante moderato, Allegro giocoso) but not so much with the fourth (Allegro energico e passionate – Piu allegro). The last movement is also in passacaglia form although the 32 variations are much richer than Webern’s. Perhaps it is to be expected given the different stages and maturity levels of the two composers? Gilbert was quite expressive in terms of forming the phrases, and in most instances he was successful.

So far this season my experience with the New York Philharmonic by and large has not been exhilarating; let’s hope it improves with additional attendance. The New York Times Review describes Zukerman’s performance as “you never know quite what you will get.”

Orpheus Chamber Orhestra with Garrick Ohlsson, Piano. October 14, 2010.

Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Section Parquet Right (Row Y, Seat 14, $25).

Symphony No. 4 in C minor “Tragic” (1816), D. 417 by Schubert (1797-1828).
Three Pieces from Lyric Suite (1926-28) by Alban Berg (1885-1935).
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

Just came back from a New York Philharmonic concert, so I thought I better get going with writing down my thoughts on this one from a couple of days ago while I still remember a bit of the performance.

We took up the offer of a 3-concert Orpheus Carnegie Hall series for $25 per ticket. This is the first concert of their season. While I have heard of the Orchestra before, I never paid much attention to it. It is a smallish orchestra (e.g., I counted 6 first violins, 2 basses) and does its work without a conductor. Instead they have a core group of people who would lead different pieces. The members seem very democratic about their seating – the violinist who led the first piece was sitting in the back of the second violin section during a subsequent piece. It is clear the first violin chair leads the whole thing as his/her gestures would be very pronounced. Tonight's concert was quite well attended.

Schubert wrote his fourth symphony when he was 19, and it sounded very mature. The four movements of the piece are (i) Adagio molto – Allegro vivace; (ii) Andante; (iii) Menuetto, Allegro vivace – Trio; and (iv) Allegro. He died young, and one wonders how things would otherwise be if he had had a longer life. The piece is quite nice, but the word “tragic” probably won’t come to the listener’s mind the way it was placed tonight. I found it generally quite positive. This may well be the result of listening to Mahler’s Tragic Symphony not too long ago. The sound of the orchestra was quite muffled, which was quite unexpected given this was Carnegie Hall. I also found the volume dynamic range to be a bit limited (a similar complaint with the 10/3 Dudamel Vienna Philharmonic Performance), which is again a pity. Could this be the result of not having a conductor to encourage the players along?

The program indicated an Intermission after the symphony, so we went out to the hallway so Anne could gobble down some food. Before we got settled we heard the orchestra’s tuning sounds, turns out it was a “false” intermission. It made more sense as otherwise they would have to bring out the piano in the middle of the second half.

Alban Berg studied under Schoenberg and is part of this “Second Viennese School.” His music however is much more melodic than Schoenberg’s, although no much of it is hummable. The Suite is a set of six movements first wriiten for a quartet, and Berg transcribed three of them (Andante amoroso; Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico; Adagio appassionato) into music for a string orchestra, and that is what we heard tonight. The Program Notes mentioned it was a great musicological event when people found the notes by Berg that explained the music. I found the enthusiasm a bit over the top, but did listen for the stories behind the different movements – the lovers’ first meeting, the first profession of love, and the consummation of the affair. Affairs have remained the same throughout history, but the music that describes them somehow manages to evolve quite drastically over the years.

Overall I find the piece okay, but not memorable. Interestingly I got to listen to Schoenberg’s other famous student Webern on Saturday.

Garrick Ohlsson, the soloist for tonight’s Beethoven Piano Concerto, won the Chopin competition in 1970. Given he grew up in the New York area, and now lives in the Bay Area, it is quite interesting that I haven’t heard him until tonight. When I was wandering the narrow halls of Carnegie Hall during (the real) intermission, I found a picture of him (when he was younger) hung on a wall, right next to one of Joan Sutherland who passed away last week.

Ohlsson certainly did an excellent technical job, intricate phrasing, no missed notes (that I could tell), and seemed to tackle the difficult passages (especially the last movement) with ease. However, the overall effect was not as good as I had hoped. I appreciated how the piano and orchestra worked together, appreciated the melodies, appreciated the brilliance, and other aspects of the performance, but somehow these elements were not strung together into a compelling story. I heard Emmuel Ax play this last year at Lincoln Center, and used phrases like “architectural masterpiece” and “thoroughly enjoyable” to describe that performance. Those words didn’t come to mind tonight. Anne thought it was a great performance, though.

The Playbill (interview with Ohlsson) described the second movement as the orchestra failed attempt to overwhelm the piano. This helped greatly in my appreciation of the movement. The three movements of the concerto are Allegro moderato, Andante con mote, and Rondo (Vivace).

Ohlsson played Chopin’s Waltz No. 18 as an encore. A bit long, but well executed and very enjoyable; his tempo was unbelievably fast.

Overall the concert was a bit disappointing. I guess my default expectation was "high" since I started not really knowing what to expect. The WQXR blogger loved it, though.

Friday, October 08, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. October 7, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. First Tier Center (Seat DD109, $65).

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1892-94) by Debussy (1862-1918).
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 47 (1902-04; rev. 1905) by Sibelius (1865-1957).
Kraft (1983-85) by Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958).

Chen Halevi, Clarinet; Carter Brey, Cello; Magnus Lindberg, Piano; Markus Rhoten, Timpani; Christopher S. Lamb, Percussion; Daniel Druckman, Percussion; Juhani Liimatainen, Electronics; Lou Mannarino, Sound Design

Alan Gilbert’s notes in the Playbill and his short talk before the concert certainly made the concert sound quite interesting. The centerpiece is going to be the Lindberg, a Finn, piece which he composed about 25 years ago. To demonstrate the tradition of Finnish music, Sibelius’s violin concerto is a natural choice. It is quite likely that Lindberg went to the Sibelius conservatory (where else could it be?), so it would be interesting to see how music from that school has changed over the years. To link the Debussy piece to the rest of the program took some imagination, although Gilbert illustrated it quite well with how radical the music actually was by demonstrating the different “amplitudes” (I think he meant chromatic intervals) in the flute, clarinet, cello, and bass segments. And he contrasted this with Wagner’s leitmotifs. In Lindberg’s case the distinctive sounds are made by different beats in different instruments, the interplay between chaos and harmony (my words), and use of musicians staged in different parts of the auditorium and sound projected in different speakers by the sound technician.

The rather lengthy introduction did make Debussy sound more interesting than usual. I must have heard this piece many times before, but somehow never seem to remember it. I would have associated it with Debussy anyway – even without Gilbert’s explanation. He did say he liked the melody in the middle part of the piece; and I couldn’t quite tell which melody he meant.

We have heard Sibelius’s violin concerto many times before (more than I remembered, it turns out, when I checked my prior blogs.) I have written a lot about Sibelius and the violin, and there is no need to repeat here. Suffice it to say the piece can be very moving if played well. My prior “encounters” with Bell hadn’t been the most encouraging: I often remarked on his intonation problems, and wondered why the sound of his Stradivarius didn’t project well. His performance today made me change my mind. The intonation problems were there, but he strung together an excellent interpretation of the concerto. The frustration, the struggle, the bargaining, and the acceptance (stages of grief) were all there. And his violin served him well, the softer passages generally spoke above the orchestra. Bell worked very hard at it: he was sweating quite profusely.

The audience was appreciative. One got the feeling Bell wanted to do an encore but thought better of it as it would detract from the overall arcing (or arching) effect of the concert.

We heard Lindberg’s EXPO and Al largo pieces before. While forgettable, they were both relatively short and bearable. Tonight’s piece was advertised to be 27 minutes long (turned out to me more than 30 minutes, or felt that way) and involved a huge orchestra. Much was written in the news about how Lindberg collected pieces of scrap metal from junkyards to be percussion instruments, and indeed there were scattered pieces of junk on stage and in the concert hall: I saw empty gas cylinders, cogs, rocks, wooden wind chimes, containers of water and a stop sign. There is also a sign in front of the podium saying something like “Sewerage Service” which Gilbert said was just nice to have. Hanging in the ceiling over the middle part of the hall was a huge gong which was lowered during the performance.

Gilbert talked a bit more about this piece, and asked different players to demonstrate the strange sounds they could make from the instruments. Mercifully, when he asked Lindberg if he had anything to say, it was “let’s get on with it.” Lindberg played the piano, the gong and other percussion instruments, and he also made a gurgling sound by blowing air into a container of water through a rubber tube.

It is a complex piece of music, started with a loud chord, and reached 62 (or 72) notes when it got to Bar 4. Also at Bar 169 the conductor had to make chirping sounds (with the aid of a microphone.) The soloists were all dressed in polo shirts, jeans, and sneakers. One’s first guess is this is for the “junkyard” theme; probably, but turns out many of them have to run from the stage to the hall and play percussion. Carter Brey showed his athleticism by jumping from the stage and running to the middle of the auditorium to tap on an empty gas tank. One could hear him teasing the percussionists about how anyone could do their job. Different brass and piccolo players also went into the hall to play certain segments. They managed to do so in their black ties and dresses.

There are microphones placed in front of the various solo instruments (the cello in particular), not for sound amplification but to move them around the concert hall over different speakers. This generated a moving effect which was interesting at times.

If I had bothered to take notes, I am sure I would have a lot to say about other aspects of the composition. Perhaps even a bit about the music itself, how it started complex and ended rather simply. The question is, however, what’s the point? It may be an architecturally interesting piece on many levels, and engages the listeners on many different levels; but as a piece that stirs the soul it fails miserably. And (to borrow a phrase from NY Times) it is not that good that it should last 30 minutes.

I have never seen so many people walk out during the middle of a piece like today. We left right at the conclusion as we had to catch a train home. A concert advertised as lasting 1 ½ hours ended up being 2 ¼ hours long. (One reason is it took 30 minutes to set up the stage for the Lindberg piece.)

The first half of the concert certainly was to my taste. I don’t regret listening to the Lindberg piece, but it is quite unlikely I will go listen to it again. Not quite the "that's 30 minutes of my life I'll never get back," but I am certainly glad Lindberg's appointment as composer-in-residence will end after this year.

The New York Times review came out today (October 8). The reviewer analyzed the Lindberg piece just I suspected people would. He was very positive about it, though.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra – Gustavo Dudamel, Conductor; Yo-Yo Ma, Cello. October 3, 2010.

Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Section CB11 (Row O, Seat 21, $78).

Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).
Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129 (1850) by Robert Schumann (1810-1856).
Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, “From the New World” (1893) by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904).

We went with the Yangs right after church. Despite the threats of traffic jams from google maps, we made it to NY in good time and managed to grab a sandwich before the concert.

I didn’t realize Vienna Philharmonic had had women artists until this concert. There were a handful of string players scattered in the violin and viola sections, and one the four (!) concertmasters is a woman. All the women (and a few men) players have an asterisk after their names in the roster, denoting their status as “confirmed members of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra who do not yet belong to the association of the Vienna Philharmonic.” Whatever else that may mean, they are still considered a different class of musicians. Perhaps more protests are necessary? The harpist (whose services were not needed in today’s program) is a full member and has the first name of “Charlotte.” So, one of my questions is answered. If there are any male harpists, Vienna Philharmonic would have hired him.

The other interesting thing we saw was a couple of violins and one viola hanging in the sections before the orchestra members marched onto the stage. Initially we thought they were for handicapped members who would not be able to bring them out; turns out everyone walked out unassisted, so our next guess is they are spares in case anyone’s instrument breaks a string during the performance. That happened to me once and I sat there – quite embarrassed – during the rest of the performance. No mishap of that nature happened, so our guess remains a guess.

On to the performance …

The Tragic Overture was relatively long for an overture at 13 minutes. The program notes describes the two Brahms overtures as self-contained symphonic pieces, and that Brahms wasn’t into story-telling. This piece sounded quite flat to me, a reaction I didn’t expect to have, given what is generally said about the conductor, and my own experience listening to him conduct Mahler’s Fifth. So, alas, the concert didn’t get off to a great start.

After the orchestra got reshuffled in preparation for the cello concerto, I noticed the concertmaster remained in his seat. Perhaps they don’t excuse themselves when they are on tour, or only some orchestras have this custom?

I don’t know which of his two cellos Ma was playing, but the instrument sounded very good especially in the high registers. The relatively short concerto (about 25 minutes) has three movements played without pause (Nicht zu schnell – Langsam – Sehr lebhaft) although the demarcations were quite clear cut. Ma clearly enjoyed himself tremendously, especially the parts where there was a dialog between the soloist and the orchestra. There was an episode where he essentially had a duet with the principal cellist that was particularly pleasant. The program notes say there are few places for the soloist to show off, but I thought it was difficult enough, even as Ma made the whole thing look effortless.

I don’t get to see Ma in person very often, but do wonder where his career would go next. After today’s concert, I somehow suspect a conducting appointment may not be too far in the future as he seemed very engaged with the orchestra around him. During the applause (after the piece ended in a flourish and a high note) I told Anne he should go and shake the principal cellist’s hand for the nice duet they did together – and sure enough he jumped over the conductor’s podium to do so. Turns out he shook the cellist’s hand and embraced him many times during the curtain calls, so perhaps they are old friends?

I read somewhere “talent is God’s way of being unfair,” and Ma is an example of it. He wears it very well, though, and always comes across as a likeable guy enjoying sharing his appreciation of music with his audience. In any case, as encore he played the Prelude in Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, made familiar by a TV ad (for American Express, I think.)

Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony is a familiar piece of music, but not often played in concert – one reason may be there are too many great recordings out there and comparisons are inevitable. At least for simple folk like me. The symphony lasts longer than it sounds (40 plus minutes) and consists of four movements (i) Adagio – Allegro molto; (ii) Largo; (iii) Scherzo: Molto vivace – Poco sostenuto; and (iv) Finale: Allegro con fuoco.

My overall impression of this was: three disappointing movements not quite redeemed by the well-played fourth movement. Again the word “flat” comes to mind. I do have a few specific negative comments, though. Both the brass and woodwind sections figure prominently in the piece, and neither section was that good. The horns in particular sounded unsteady at times. The English Horn, which has a prominent melancholic melody in the second movement, sounded uninspired. For me, however, the greatest regret was the orchestra’s failure to make full use of the excellent acoustics of the auditorium. The dynamic range by-and-large was too compressed, so we didn’t get to hear the quiet whispers that (one hopes) would capture one’s imagination.

Again, with the exception of the last movement during which he was off his feet several times, Dudamel’s conducting was quite subdued. I remain amazed by these leading-the-beat type of conductors; sometimes the interval between his cue and when the orchestra would come in would be so long that I would have jumped in many times. But then I am not a professional.

The applause was enthusiastic. And there was an encore (piece unknown to me.)

On paper this should have been a great concert: Vienna Philharmonic, Yo-Yo Ma, and Gustavo Dudamel. Indeed the number of people outside looking for tickets is the largest I have ever seen. The high expectations set were not met.

Oh, we had to wait a long time to pick up the car (the garage had only one attendant), and there was a bit of a traffic jam leaving the city. Consistent with the theme that things were okay, but could be better.

Today (October 9) I found the New York Times review of the series (with different conductors), and the section on this particular one is rather short. He takes Ma's enthusiastic embrace of the principal cellist Franz Bartolomey as condescension. He also identified the encore as the Waltz from Bernstein's divertimento in which Bartolomey played a major part. Perhaps the practice of principals excusing themselves is a good one as we won't have this sort of perceived competition.

Friday, October 01, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, Conductor. September 30, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier, Seat CC7 ($65.00).

Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-05, rev. 1906) by Mahler (1860-1911)

We heard this symphony in June 2005, conducted by Maazel. Looking back on my notes, it was a great performance. I was wondering then how often this symphony gets performed, well, in the case of the New York Philharmonic, four plus years.

Many of the things I observed about the symphony carried over to this one. In fact I am quite impressed with the detail notes I took about that performance, if I may say so myself. Having read both my own notes and the program notes before the concert, I was ready to enjoy this performance, and enjoyed it I did.

The four movements of the symphony are (i) Allegro energico, ma non troppo; (ii) Andante; (iii) Scherzo: Weighty; and (iv) Finale. Allegro moderato – Allegro energico.

A second hearing of any symphony, particularly one by Mahler, isn’t going to make one an expert on the piece. I was wondering whether I wanted to buy a 12-or-so-CD collection of Mahler’s symphonies, this clinched it, I shall do so shortly. In the past 5 or so years (since I started this blog) I have heard Nos. 1, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, some of them twice, but I have only No. 5 in my iPod – time to fill up the library.

Given the passage of time, it is difficult to compare Gilbert’s performance with that of Maazel’s. Nonetheless, I have to say Gilbert still has a ways to go before he can bring out Mahler the same way Maazel seems able to. The symphony was at some point called “Tragic” and is described by von Karajan as one that ends in complete hopelessness. The ending surely fit the description, but there certainly didn’t seem to be the same degree of desperation and struggle compared to Maazel’s performance. At times Gilbert even appeared a bit too mechanical (and too crisp, believe it or not) in the way the led the orchestra.

Interestingly, the remark I made about the second movement (“the movement could have concluded at this point”) is still valid, in my judgment. Also, Mahler initially had three hammer blows but reduced it to two because he was superstitious. We heard three in this performance, hopefully nothing bad will happen. Actually by the time the third strike was heard the despair was so complete that it felt a bit like an overkill. According to the NY Phil website, “the hammer” was designed for the June 2005 performance. The other big discussion by Gilbert was the order of movements (ii) and (iii). The way it was played tonight was the same as that of 2005, and is the usual order of things in symphonies. I do wonder if the overall experience would be different, though.

In any case, this was an “all hands on deck” production, many instruments doing “doubling” functions, two sets of timpani, two sets of cowbells (one off stage), this famous hammer, and two sets of cymbals. It was inevitable that a stray note would occur here or there.

A couple of observations I forgot to write down from last concert. One is this new guy who is both a timpanist and a percussionist; he seems to be tuning the timpani drums all the time. The other is the cellist Qiang Tu lost his endowed chair. The chair is still in the program, empty, and he is still there, now a regular player. Wonder what happened.

I was glad I went to this concert, and actually got to compare two performances (not necessarily valid).

(Note added 10/3) Here is the NY Times review. The reviewer evidently knows more about the music than I do; he is quite pleased with the performance.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, Conductor; Itzhak Perlman, Violin. September 24, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1, Seat W103 ($65.00).

Don Juan, Tone Poem after Nikolaus Lenau, Op. 20 (1888) by Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64 (1800) by Mendelssohn (1809-47)
Metaboles (1961-64) by Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916)
Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes of Carl Maria von Weber (1940-43) by Hindemith (1895-1963)

This is the first series of concerts by the Philharmonic this season (not counting the opening program), the program notes say the concert lasts 1:45 (including intermission), it ended up being 2:15. The pieces lasted longer than what the program notes say: 18 min, 27 min, 17 min and 20 min in order; the intermission was longer than the usual 20 minutes also, they had trouble getting the audience back into the auditorium. Which was okay, as we still had ample time to take the train home.

The program notes were more detailed than usual. Since it is the same program annotator (James Keller), I imagine it is an outlier instead of the new normal. In any case, Strauss’s tone poem describes the well-known character Don Juan’s conquests of women. Some noble, some ”common tramps” (supposedly a remark made by Strauss himself during a Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsal), and depicted by various episodes in the music. I didn’t try to count how many different “women” were in the music, but enough. Don Juan met his end with a violent sound in the orchestra followed by a few measures of decrescendo, all fair enough in the case of a tone poem. Gilbert says this is a difficult orchestra virtuoso piece; and he is right as the New York Philharmonic sounded muddled and chaotic on many occasions.

Mendelssohn’s violin concerto is a staple of the violin repertoire. Considered a show piece with nice melodies, it is always enjoyable. Difficult, but definitely within the abilities of a good violinist. With Perlman as the soloist, what can go wrong? A lot, it turns out.

It was a lackluster performance, especially from Perlman. The first movement (Allegro molto appassionato) began well enough, but soon afterwards he began to lose it. Stray notes seldom happen in a virtuoso performance, and soon he had a couple of them. That must have caught the audience by surprise, and probably shook Perlman’s confidence as he began to have some intonation problems. The second movement (Andante) was uninspired, and some of the double stops were not as clear as they could be. The performance was redeemed somewhat by the third movement (Allegretto ma non troppo – Allegro molto) where Perlman got to showcase some of his well-known “light touch” (my terminology). Anne didn’t think it was that good – she complained about the soloist and orchestra not being in sync.

The audience still jumped up and gave him an enthusiastic standing ovation. I am beginning to have my doubts about the sophistication of the New York concert-going public. One could attribute the applause to (i) it’s the NY Phil and Perlman, so it must be good; or (ii) Perlman has overcome a lot of physical difficulties, so we should always applaud no matter what. I suspect it is the former. Perlman may just be coasting (after all, he probably starting playing this concerto when he was six) or he has lost some of his touch. Boos from the audience may be a wake-up call to send him back to the practice studio, or for him to concentrate his career on teaching and conducting.

Henri Dutilleux is described as one of the most important composers working today, per Gilbert. Since there are so few of them (I tend to forget them immediately), that may well be true. In any case, I couldn’t make heads or tails from Dutilleux’s discussion of the title: Metaboles means (i) passage connecting the conjunct and disjunct systems; (ii) a stylistic figure in the field of rhetoric; (iii) a term in physiology. Played without pause, the 18 or so minute piece actually consists of five movements: Incantatoire, Lineare, Obsessionnel, Torpide, and Flamboyant. Other than the last one, I don’t know any of the words. The orchestration is rich, and the sound was full. Supposedly each of the first four movements highlighted a particular section (woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion) and Gilbert did ask some members to take a bow, I couldn’t quite tell.

Hindemith’s piece was a lot easier to grasp (grasping doesn’t mean enjoying). It consists of four movements: Allegro; Turandot, Scherzo (Moderato); Andantino; and Marsch. I take it Marsch means March (which it sounded like), but have no idea what Turandot means, other than it has nothing to do with Puccini’s eponymous opera. In any case, the first movement sounds like a “regular” orchestra piece, the second begins with a quiet introduction by the percussion, the third starts with a flute solo and is characterized by different sections of the orchestra repeating a theme in order, the last movement begins with the brass section and somehow reminds me of the march in Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. Overall an okay piece, but not a composition or performance that would make you sit of the edge of your seat.

For this concert, Gilbert didn’t need music for the Strauss and Hindemith pieces, but needed it for Mendelssohn and Dutilleux. A little surprising on the Mendelssohn since he is a violinist himself. We also noticed that they have a young timpanist/percussionist (Kyle Zerna) and Qiang Tu vacated the chair he had last couple of years – wonder what happened there.

I didn’t expect to say this about the first New York Philharmonic performance of the season: uninspiring and disappointing. We are going next week to hear Mahler’s sixth, let’s hope it goes much much better.

As of today (Saturday 9/25) I haven’t found a review of the performance yet. I will link to it when I see it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Opera Australia – Bellini’s La Sonnambula. August 14, 2010.

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House (Seat Stalls X34, AUD$105).

Story. Elvino and Amina are engaged to be married. Amina sleep walks and ends up walking into the bedroom of Count Rodolfo who has disguised himself as a traveler. Rodolfo leaves the room, Amina falls asleep in the bed, and is discovered and wrongly accused of having an affair. Elvino calls off the wedding. Rodolfo is convinced by the villagers to explain the situation, and Amina appears in her sleepy state. Elvino, who is about to marry the innkeeper Lisa, recognizes his mistake and he and Amina are married.

Conductor – Richard Bonynge; Lisa – Lorina Gore, Amina – Emma Matthews, Teresa – Jacqueline Dark, Elvino – Aldo Di Toro, Count Rodolfo – Stephen Bennett.

I went to this opera with Steven and Ruth. By the time Ruth went to get the tickets, all the seats left were in the last row with no view of the surtitles. Even though the story is simple and I could basically understand how the story was unfolding, it was still difficult to get the funny lines without the help of the English surtitles. This greatly reduced my enjoyment of the story, but probably enhanced my appreciation of the music.

This is the first Bellini opera I ever heard. Certainly the composition is very melodic with pleasant music, but somehow none of the tunes are hummable. The story as I understand it is quite lame. With a comedy you don’t expect a tight story line, but one is left scratching one’s head as to why Elvino would decide to marry Lisa so readily and then change his mind about it, equally readily. And you get the sense that the story is unfolding too slowly. There is this long aria by Amina in Act 3 that, while nice enough, is unnecessary and incongruent with the general tone of the story. Perhaps one shouldn’t expect this sort of consistency with a comedic opera, but somehow I keep wishing …

The singing by most artists was adequate. Lisa, for instance, had a wide range and sounded strong. However, she needed to shout if she was to be heard over the chorus, and her voice sounded unrefined at times. Elvino had a good voice but it was relatively weak compared to the two ladies. The Count did a good job. I found Amina very impressive from the get go. She is one of these sopranos whose whispers can float above the din of the orchestra and the chorus. Even the slow aria (mentioned above) was nicely done as a piece of music, even though it didn’t quite work as part of the plot. Her voice was a bit strained towards the end of the performance, though. Let's hope she recovers in time for her next engagement.

The orchestra sounded weaker than how I remembered it from past performances. It was more an accompaniment than part of the show itself. Which is a pity. The conductor could have been a bit more assertive; it would have cut down on the instances of hesitation by the orchestra.

I guess overall “adequate” is the term that best describes this performance: the opera, the music, and most of the artists. Only exception is the excellent singing by the soprano Emma Matthews. In any case, the performance works well as a matinee, but, alas, not much more.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Lionel Bringuier, conductor; David Fray, piano. August 6, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier (Seat 10Box8, $30).

Overture to Cosi fan tutte, K.588 (1789-90) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major, K.482 (1785).
Symphony No. 38 in D major, K.504 (“Prague”) (1786).

This is an all-Mozart program consisting of work done by the composer during the last few years of his life when he had reached yet another level of maturity. By this time Vienna had begun to abandon Mozart and thus hastened his decline in health and financial well-being. One city that continued to appreciate him was Prague, and the Symphony tonight was premiered in that city to great acclaim.

The Program Notes tried to make the case that there was a serious side to Cosi fan tutte by saying there are some “sharp satiric barbs” in the humor. That may well be the cases, but for a casual listener like myself the barbs are too well-hidden. I remember coming away disappointed at seeing the opera several years ago. The overture, quite short at 5 minutes, is quite enjoyable though. The orchestra did a nice job.

I heard David Fray a few months ago. I still remember him using a regular chair (which he did again), and being not very impressed with his playing – not enough panache is what I wrote down. He had some early jitters during the first movement (Allegro) but the first movement was generally well done. My one complaint would be too much use of the pedal which made the music less crisp than it could be. The second movement (Andante), however, was quite the opposite. He seemed to overestimate his ability to string a legato line together, but his infrequent use of the pedal made the music sound a bit disjointed. The third movement (Allegro) was the best of them all. The timpanist found out his low drum was not quite tuned correctly right after the start of the second and it was funny to see him make adjustments as the piece progressed. He did manage to get it right, after a few tries. The cadenzas were written by Edwin Fischer.

I had a much more positive view of the Orchestra after Wednesday’s concert. By this time, however, I was ready to re-evaluate my assessment. Perhaps it was the number of performances they have given, or the number of times I have heard them, they began to sound just so-so. Another possible cause was the conductor, a young French man. He is the “lead the beat” type, but I am not sure the Orchestra is comfortable enough with him. Thus many entrances sounded tentative.

The “Prague” Symphony consists of three movements: Adagio-Allegro, Andante, and Finale: Presto. The Program Notes mentions that this is the only “mature” Mozart symphony where there is no Minuet dance movement. The music is performed pleasantly enough, but one wonders how much better it would sound if the orchestra didn’t show any hesitation.

So, just like last year, my take is that this is a concert not in the “don’t miss” category.

Pre-Concert Recital (Mostly Mozart Festival) – Jenny Lin, piano. August 6, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Free).

Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major, Op. 87 (1950-51) by Shostakovich (1906-1975).
Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major, from The Well-tempered Clavier, BWV 846 (1722) by Bach (1685-1750).
Prelude and Fugue No. 12 in F minor, from The Well-tempered Clavier, BWV 857 by Bach.
Prelude and Fugue No. 15 in D-flat major, Op. 87 by Shostakovich.

We took the 4:30 pm train to NYC and had enough time to eat (inside the dining room) at Ollie’s and then make it to the concert.

The 4 preludes and fugues lasted a total of 22 minutes. The ones by Bach of course are well-known, he wrote two sets of them, the second set being done 20 years later in 1742. Many other composers have also written these cycles, but Bach’s remain most famous.

The Shostakovich pieces are unexpectedly tonal, even when played right next to Bach’s baroque compositions. Compared to the typical dark Shostakovich work, they sounded positively exuberant. However, they do seem to have the rich sound of Bach, perhaps I should be listening more for the dissonance than the structure?

Jenny Lin was born in Taiwan, spent a lot of time in Europe, and now lives in New York.

Not being a regular solo recital listener, I can say only that I enjoyed the short performance.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Mostly Mozart Festival Orhcestra - Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor; Gil Shaham, violin. August 4, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier (Seat 10Box2, $30).

Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in E-flat major (1937-38) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K.219 (Turkish) (1775) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op 36 (1801-02) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

These half-price tickets were bought from Goldstar, with an additional $6.50 service fee per ticket. We were seated in the front section of the First Tier Box and had a good view of the stage which was moved forward into the front regular seating area. The concert was reasonably well attended.

The Stravinsky concerto was written for 15 instruments (10 strings, 2 horns, flute, and clarinet). It was written to commemorate the 30th wedding of a Washington DC couple. The three movements are Tempo giusto, Allegretto, and Con Motto. This was at least our third time listening to the piece, and this also was the first time that I came close (but not quite) to enjoying it. The music is interesting enough, but I kept asking "what is the point"? The flutist, a young Korean woman, did quite well and was recognized by the conductor at the end.

Mozart wrote all his five violin concertos within the span of less than a year, when he was 19. It is known as the "Turkish" probably for the passage in the final movement, although the program notes say there are other Turkish references also. The three movements are (i) Allegro aperto, (ii) Adagio, and (iii) Rondo: Tempo di Minuetto.

Gil Shaham tackled with ease the piece, playing on his 1699 "Countess Polignac" Strad. The concerto in general is quite easy to play, and Shaham did it crisply. The Joachim cadenzas are a bit more challenging, but they are relatively short. The interplay between the soloist and the orchestra was excellent. Since we had a good view of the stage, we could see Shaham's intensity, which bordered on obsession at times, very clearly.

He played an encore "not written by Mozart" which showcased (repeatedly, thus unfortunate in my judgment) some of the more demanding violin techniques. We could see that the music was hand-written. Perhaps he made it up (as opposed to "composed") the piece himself?

I am somewhat familiar with Beethoven's second symphony, whose four movements are (i) Adagio - Allegro con brio, (ii) Larghetto, (iii) Scherzo: Allegro, and (iv) Allegro molto. This was written when Beethoven, at 32, was somewhat young as a composer. The word "Mozartean" was used often in the program notes to describe this work, and I agree. On the other hand, this work also supposedly anticipates a lot of Beethoven's later compositions, including the opera Fidelio and his later symphonies. I honestly couldn't tell, but then I don't study these things in depth. I am sure Beethoven didn't write this with all his future works in mind, he must have discovered he had stumbled into some interesting new composition techniques. The orchestra's performance was delightful.

Because of traffic, we took the train in, and the Shaham encore put our return schedule in jeopardy. We left right after the Symphony and managed to catch the 10:18 train back. NJ Transit has raised ticket prices and no longer offers off-peak tickets, roundtrip tickets now cost $24.50, nearly making it worthwhile economically for two to drive into the city. Not sure that's a good thing.

The MM Orchestra is quite small at about 40 people and only 32 or 33 were used in Mozart (strings, horns, and clarinets). It sounded quite good. The conductor, a young Spaniard, conducted without a baton, and did the Beethoven from memory. He was quite effective in bringing out the dynamics of the compositions; however, one didn't come away impressed with how he molded the music.

We enjoyed the concert. As of today there is no New York Times review of the concert yet.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Carducci String Quartet. 7/14/2010.

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

Quartet members: Matthew Denton and Michelle Fleming, violins; Eoin Schmidt-Martin,Viola; Emma Denton, cello.

String Quartet Op. 33, No. 2 “The Joke” by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).
String Quartet No. 2 in E-flat by Ernest Moeran (1894-1950).
String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 “American” by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904).

Anne is in Shanghai this week, so I went to this concert “alone”. David and Vivien got the ticket for me and we met up at the auditorium at about 7:15 pm (concert started at 8 pm). I remarked to David and Vivien that most quartets I have heard in concert were heard over the last several years at the Princeton summer series. Chamber music is not high on my list of “likes”. No so much I mind them, just that there is so much orchestral music that appeals to me even more.

In any case, tonight’s quartet consists of two married couples (one could easily tell by their names, unless Emma Denton decided to keep her maiden name). One couple is British, the other Irish. They adopted an Italian town as their namesake in 1997. All the players appear to be in their 30s, so they were very young then.

The Haydn quartet is one of the more balanced ones I have heard, my usual complaint about a quartet being a violin with 3 accompanying instruments isn’t that valid in this instance. Actually the balance for the group is very good, although the cello could be a bit stronger. Given the title of the piece, I kept trying to hear what the joke was. There were a few places that – if one stretched one’s imagination – could be called funny. It turns out the joke was at the very end where in two instances people applauded before the piece ended. To be fair, Haydn just added a couple more phrases to what could be construed as “natural” endings of standard chord sequences. Good thing the audience didn’t take themselves that seriously; or is it now obligatory to applaud at those points – like the tradition of standing up when the Hallelujah Chorus is sung? The movements are (i) Allegro moderato; (ii) Scherzo: Allegro; (iii) Largo; and (iv) Presto.

Moeran was either British or Scottish, and this quartet was published posthumously. People weren’t sure if this was chronologically his first or second quartet as there is no record when this was actually composed. Information courtesy David. We also had a discussion of our favorite (or lack thereof) English composer: Purcell, Elgar, Vaughan Williams. There were quite a few transplants such as Handel and Mendelssohn. Matthew Denton said a few words about how the music started sounding like Elgar and ended like an Irish folk tune. In that regard it was quite interesting, and it didn’t sound what mid-20th century composition would be like. The three movements are (i) Allegro Moderato Ma Ben Animato; (ii) Lento – Vivace – Allegretto – Andante; and (iii) Allegro Vivace. The third movement is so short that it might well be part of the second movement. David thought only two movements were written when the manuscript was discovered.

I was quite sure I hadn’t heard the Dvorak quartet before. Turns out the first movement is very familiar (and melodious). For some reason the quartet sounded a little bit out of tune at the beginning. Perhaps the first two pieces were in E-flat and now a piece in F needed some adjustment on my part? We were wondering whether “American” in the Dvorak piece refers to Native American music (which I know very little about) or Folk American music (a la The New World Symphony). After listening to it, I am quite sure it refers to the latter. The four movements are (i) Allegro ma non troppo; (ii) Lento; (iii) Molto vivace; and (iv) Finale: Vivace ma non troppo.

The quartet played a South American piece (didn’t hear the specifics) that had “whishing” (rapid upwards glissandos) and sandpaper sounds (made by bowing the strings on the other side of the bridge), and a lot of tapping on the keyboard. A fun piece to hear, and – it appears – to play.

All in all a very delightful concert.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Bramwell Tovey, Conductor; Mikhail Simonyan, Violin. June 29, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat OO13, $30).

March and Scherzo from The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33 (1919) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1878) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).
Selections from Act III of Raymonda, Op. 57 (1896-97) by Glazunov (1865-1936).
Marche slave, Op. 31 (1876) by Tchaikovsky.

Our half-tickets were obtained through Goldstar. The seats were located in the third to last row of the main floor, but the view was okay, especially with binoculars. The acoustics were actually quite good compared to other parts of the concert hall.

Tonight’s program was billed as “From Russia with Love” even though not all the pieces were based on love stories. All the composers were Russian, the soloist is Russian. The Orchestra is New York, and the Conductor is British. There were a lot of foreign-language speaking people in the audience, I assume they were Russian. You see lots of Chinese going to a Lang Lang concert, and a lot of Japanese to one with Uchida playing.

With the exception of the violin concerto, I thought I wasn’t familiar with the rest of the program (their durations – 4, 15, and 10 minutes – add up to less than that of the concerto at 33 minutes. Turns out the March from the opera is considered Prokofiev’s signature piece, and Marche slave is a very familiar tune.

The March and Scherzo together lasted 4 minutes, which was shorter than the time it took to read the Program Notes. The pieces were played crisply, but there wasn’t much “emotion” attached to it. Perhaps there isn’t much emotion in the writing as the story (per the Notes) is a bit absurd. I guess it serves the purpose of getting over the initial jitters for the performers, and gives late comers a chance to be seated. And it also demonstrated that the guest conductor could work with the orchestra, and the orchestra was in good condition: some kind of sound check.

Tovey talked a bit about the concerto before playing resumed. I didn’t realize the opening theme by the orchestra isn’t reused in the piece at all. I had never heard of Simonyan before and didn’t know what to expect. He is a young fellow in his 20s. He started well enough with a firm and confident statement. The Notes says he plays two different violins, a 1769 Gagliano and a 2010 Christophe Landon copy of a 1734 Stradivarius. I wondered which one he played: my guess is the Stradivarius copy as the sound carried well but at times was quite unrefined. Unfortunately the rest of the performance didn’t quite meet the expectations set by the opening. Actually by “world class” standards it bordered on atrocious. A missed note or bad intonation here or there is quite forgivable, but the worst of it is he played it like an etude. At some point you felt he gave up on the piece and was just going through the motions. The last movement provided some redemption, but not enough. [The three movements are (i) Allegro moderato – Moderato assai; (ii) Canzonetta. Andante; and (iii) Finale. Allegro vivacissimo.]

As encore, Simonyan played a virtuoso piece which I had never heard of (and I couldn’t hear what he said). It is a strange piece, probably difficult, but also didn’t go anywhere.

Tovey mentioned that Simonyan played at Windsor Castle with Prince Charles in the audience. I hope he played better then, or Prince Charles is a more charitable listener. The applause by the audience was quite enthusiastic, though.

Glazunov is the most famous of the second tier of Russian composers, per Tovey. I guess it is difficult to measure up to people such as Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky (and the list is much longer.) The Program Notes has a short description of the story, and Act III is about the wedding of the protagonists. The different movements for this performance are: Entr’acte; Grand pas hongrois; Pass classique hongrois; Variation II; Variation IV; and Galop. Tovey said there was no need to applaud between movements, and I suspect none would have been forthcoming. Not that they were poorly played, but the movements (excuses to have dancers doing their thing) just weren’t that exciting.

Marche slave was written before the 1812 Overture, and the latter has many episodes based on the former. Turns out the piece is actually quite familiar. Both Anne and I would probably mistake this as a Rimsky-Korsakov piece with a short section from 1812 spliced in if we had to guess. It was marked as a funeral march, but I didn't hear it as such at all. Also, the title means Slavish March, not the march of a slave. in some sense you can call this a very "misunderstood" piece of composition. It was quite enjoyable and quite well performed.

As an encore, the orchestra played a March from the Nutcracker Suite.

Overall, I am quite critical of this particular concert. I am sure the criticism is justified. However, perhaps I should look at it as a summer interlude and set my expectations accordingly. Also, how well the soloist plays matters, but I also wonder if the conductor actually matters more than I would expect.

Monday, June 28, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, Conductor. June 26, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier (Seat CC18, $48).

Al largo (2010) by Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958) (World Premiere).
Missa solemnis, Op. 123 (1819-23) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Christine Brewer, Soprano; Jane Henschel, Mezzo-Soprano; Anthony Dean Griffey, Tenor; Eric Ownes, Bass-Baritone; New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, Director.

We were having a quiet few days at home, and decided to go to New York to see if we can get a couple of these discounted tickets at the Atrium (turns out they temporarily moved to Alice Tully Hall) for tonight’s concert. In fact it was going to be the last performance of the regular season. Before we left we saw from the website that they still had quite a few seats left, and the auditorium was pretty full for the concert, so somehow they managed to sell most of their tickets.

We had a few extra hours in New York and walked down to Columbus Circle to take a look at this Museum of Art and Design. Their exhibition titled “Live or Dead?” was quite interesting. One of the exhibits was a copy of a scroll/painting in the Wuxi, China museum. The copy was done by casting shadows of leaves, straws, and other natural materials onto an opaque piece of glass. Pretty clever and quite nicely done. The exhibits were reasonably interesting but I don’t see how they can draw enough of a crowd to generate any appreciable income.

After a simple dinner at China Fun, we were ready for the concert.

We heard a Lindberg piece (EXPO) earlier this season, I don’t remember much of it, but I am quite sure I wasn’t particularly fond of it. (A review of my blog confirms this.) Tonight’s piece, alas, was to be 25 minutes long. “Al largo” is a contrived title that doesn’t quite fit the music no matter how you interpret it (slow, far away from the coast, open sea, etc.) The composer makes the claim of “this is the fastest music I’ve ever written, yet deep down there is a feeling of a very slow undertone and a very slow momentum …” I didn’t find the music fast (perhaps he generally writes very slowly?) and certainly didn’t catch the slow undertone. The piece at least contained many interesting and exuberant passages, although I couldn’t figure out how they fitted together. Overall the best statement I can make about the piece is it felt 25 minutes long.

Beethoven took a lot of time to write this mass, and actually missed several deadlines, including the installation of his patron Archduke Rudolph as a Cardinal. The Program Notes also says the score was released in print at a time close to the composer’s death (1827). So it took quite a while to get things published a couple of centuries ago also. In any case, I didn’t know of this work’s existence until this concert season.

I wholeheartedly agree this piece is uniquely Beethoven. Even though I’m sure he didn’t use such tempo marking for a mass, there were quite a few passages of “Allegro con brio” in there. The demands on the chorus seemed particularly great, and the New York Choral Artists did very well. There were a couple of places (e.g., at the end of Gloria) that I really felt applauses were warranted.

The sections of the mass are: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The words are standard, but I found the performance quite moving in a spiritual sense. While in college I knew this Christian friend who was offended when choirs sing sacred music to get people into a reflective mood. Some of that may be true, but I nonetheless don’t find that objectionable at all. This is after all the reason why sacred music gets written.

The concertmaster Glen Dicterow played the solo violin in Benedictus. It was a bit unsteady and disappointing. For someone with perfect pitch (per an earlier Program Notes) he certainly missed quite a few notes. The overall movement was still quite enjoyable.

Gilbert claims there are these secular elements in the music to make one wonder if there were hints of Beethoven searching for his relationship with faith. He points to the military elements in Agnus Dei as examples of “secular elements seem[ing] to take over.” There are indeed march-like phrases, but I don’t think they are nearly strong enough to make Gilbert’s case. I realize I am making this statement after hearing the music once, while Gilbert studied it carefully.

A few interesting items. There was this lady cellist sitting next to the principal, we wonder if she was auditioning for a job. Also, Thomas Stacey, who usually plays the English Horn, was playing the oboe for the Beethoven piece. I am sure he is quite good at it, just that I had never seen it until now. This piece was last performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1999, and Christine Brewer sang the soprano part also.

The New York Times gave the Beethoven performance a generally positive review. The review of the Lindberg piece was a bit more mixed.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Opera-in-concert; Edo de Waart, conductor. May 15, 2010.

Hong Kong Cultural Center Concert Hall, Balcony (Seat B132, HK$280).

Fidelio, Op. 72 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

Story. Leonore’s husband Florestan is imprisoned as a political prisoner by Don Pizarro. Leonore disguises herself as Fidelio and gets a job at the prison. Pizarro asks Rocco to murder Florestan upon hearing the visit by the Minister of Justice Don Fernando. As Pizarro prepares to kill Florestan, Fernando appears and orders the release of the prisoner.

Cast. Leonore/Fidelio – Susan Bullock, Florestan – Simon O’Neill, Rocco – Kristinn Sigmundsson, Marzelline – Lisa Larsson, Don Pizarro – Eike Wilm Schulte, Don Fernando – Andrew Foster-Williams. Shanghai Opera House Choir, Martin Wright, Chorus master and vocal coach.

Fidelio is the only opera Beethoven wrote. He was supposedly only interested in serious stories and detested works such as Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro because he considered them frivolous. On this point I somewhat agree with Beethoven as I find comedic operas generally a less than satisfactory experience. Beethoven also recognized his shortcomings as an operatic composer as this work was revised a couple of times.

Despite the program notes claim that this is a huge and lasting success, I have never come across a staged performance and this is the first opera-in-concert I ever encountered. The Leonore Overtures, on the other hand, are standard orchestra repertoire.

In tonight’s performance the Overture started very well with the strings playing crisply in unison. However, the horns sounded very tentative when they first came in, although they improved as the program proceeded.

Given the stage and where the conductor, the orchestra, and the cast were, it is difficult to see how the singers got their cues from the conductor. But they managed, probably with the help of the TV monitors placed at the back of the auditorium. The auditorium seats about 2000 people, it feels quite intimate as the balcony (which has about ½ the seats) surrounds the stage. A good part of the balcony was blocked off, part empty and part used by the chorus.

During Act 1 the performance wasn’t particularly impressive. Pizarro especially couldn’t project his voice. Neither did Susan Bullock do well as Fidelio. The program notes describes her as an accomplished Wagner singer, I wonder how she manages as Brunnhilde or Isolde with such a weak voice, or is the acoustics in the Concert Hall so bad? Interestingly, a lot of the music sounded like Mozart, which is reasonable to expect given the musical heritage of those days. But I wonder how Beethoven would react if this was pointed out to him.

This is the second staged opera I have heard (the other being Berlioz’s Faust). Even though there was some acting involved, there was no sense of anguish in the singing. I needed the crutch of seeing the inside of a prison cell, perhaps. Another interesting fact is that the English and Chinese surtitles were often different. They conveyed the meaning quite well, but can’t be exact translations of the original German text.

I took a more center seat after the intermission, and the acoustics sounded much better there. My revised opinion was probably caused by the long “God” sung by Florestan when he first appeared. Unfortunately the brass still sounded tentative. And I saw the narrator sitting at a desk! Florestan was wearing tails, a first for a prisoner, I’m sure. A trio sung by Rocco, Leonore, and Florestan was one of the few moving scenes for the entire opera. One thing I noticed was that Florestan sang towards the balcony while most other singers sang towards the lower level, that may explain why most of them sounded weak. You would think the first thing they teach is to sing to the entire audience.

All in all, however, Act 2 was much more enjoyable. Indeed I entertained the thought of leaving after the first act since I was a bit sleepy from jet lag and the wine I had during dinner. I am glad I stayed.

This was the first time I saw de Waart, and I enjoyed his conducting. Maybe he could be a bit more economical in his cues, but he seemed to generate a coherent and pleasant rendition of the opera. As for the opera itself, I am a bit disappointed.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra – Yan Huichang, conductor; Wong Chi-ching, pipa; Akiko Suwanai, violin. May 8, 2010.

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, Rear Stalls (Seat R7, HK$250).

Three Melodies of West Yunnan by Guo Wenjing.
A Thousand Sweeps by Law Wing-fai.
Violin Concerto, The Butterfly Lovers, by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang.
The Yellow River Capriccio by Cheng Dazhao.

I do not know much about Chinese music. Even though I grew up in Hong Kong, most people I knew would associate music with western music. At my high school we did have many classmates who learned Chinese music instruments – I still remember a friend demonstrating how the pipa was played – and I am quite sure there was a Chinese Orchestra. Nonetheless my exposure to Chinese music has been the occasional Chinese opera, several different kinds of instruments, and some knowledge of the theory behind most of it (such as the pentatonic scale.)

This performance challenged most of my belief and prior knowledge about the genre (if I may call it that). For example, there are many “hu” instruments ranging in pitch from the high “gao hu” to the low “bass gehu”. To me they parallel those of a western orchestra (violin and bass strings for gaohu and bass gehu, for instance). The seating arrangement of the orchestra section parallels that of a western orchestra. The only significant deviation is the many plucked strings represented in the Chinese Orchestra. Some instruments are western (timpani, bass drum) and some are borrowed by western music (the gong and the whip).

In that sense the performance was very much like a western orchestra playing Chinese music; in this case the sounds were more oriental and individual techniques can be quite different. The way the music is conducted is quite western also, except in the case of Yan there was a lot more movement and cues to the sections.

The first piece was commissioned by this Orchestra, with the first two movements (A Va Mountain; Jino Dance) composed in 1994 and the last (Sacrifice – Torches – Potent Liquors) completed considerably later in late 2008. I went to Yunnan recently and wouldn't have associated the piece with that region. The music sounded quite dissonant at various times and instead of feeling unresolved I just wished it didn't sound as “grating” as it did. While one could hear the “tonic” note quite easily, there was none of this pentatonic stuff.

The pipa soloist is a member of the orchestra. She clearly seems to be a master at the instrument, but the instrument evidently calls for limited types of techniques like strumming and pushing the strings along the frets, and the occasional harmonic note. And the pipa probably works better when played by itself. It was heard clearly when played by itself and was often drowned out by the orchestra especially during the louder passages.

The Butterfly Lovers is a popular violin concerto, originally written for the violin and a western orchestra. It has been arranged for different solo instruments and ensembles, tonight's edition premiered in 1978 by this orchestra.

Akiko Suwanai comes with great credentials: youngest ever winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, student at Julliard, and the 1714 Stradivarius “Dolphin” once owned by Jascha Heifetz. She played well, but not perfect. Some passages are difficult, but shouldn't present as much problems as they did for her.

I hadn't heard the entire concerto for a while and was surprised that while the music contains many nice melodies, the overall construction of the concert leaves quite a bit to be desired. The composers couldn't quite string the melodies together the way Dvorak could with the New World Symphony, for instance. The three sections are played through without a break. They parallel the famous folklore of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. The Introduction and Exposition section represents the brotherly pledge of Liang and Zhu (who disguised herself as a boy so she could study); the Development describes Zhu's refusal to enter into a pre-arranged marriage; the Recapitulation pictures how the two lovers turn into butterflies by reintroducing the original love theme.

There is this rather long discussion in the program notes about why the angst of the Hong Kong and Macau people led to the popularity of the piece in the two cities. I was a teenager when all this happened and can say nothing is further from the truth. I would say the piece was popular because the rather simple taste of the concert-going audience just lapped up the melodies. Remember Hong Kong was called a “cultural desert” at that time. Certainly in the 60s there was no such thing as a torn national identity among the young people (I attended a rather influential high school, with Dr. Sun Yat-sen being an alumnus of the school.) We thought of ourselves as Chinese ruled by benevolent British colonialists and were deathly afraid of the communists in Mainland China. In Chinese parlance, what the annotator did can be considered revisionist.

The fourth piece was supposed to describe how meandering the Yellow River it. There were quite a few passages where the suo-na played an important part. The instrument looks like something between a trumpet and a clarinet and – to me – produces a sound that is simply aweful. It reminds me of a Chinese funeral dirge.

Three encore pieces were played. The first two were “Ever Upward” and “Eagle Shooter”. The third one was (I think, didn't hear Yan clearly) “Filled up with Blessings.” Yan engaged the audience in playing the little drums were were handed, and to shout “hu” and “ha” as part of the performance. I must say he was quite good at getting the audience involved.

I have mixed feelings about the concert. I am of the belief that any thing done at the highest level is amazing to the observer. It may well be true in this case, and there are occasions when I watched in awe; in general, though, I left the concert feeling something was lacking.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Metropolitan Opera – Rossini’s Armida. April 27, 2010.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle Seat D4 ($102.50).

Story. The Crusades are marching onto Jerusalem to try to free the city. Their leader has recently died and they elect Rinaldo as the new leader. The sorceress Armida together with her uncle Idraote disguise themselves as the rightful ruler of Damascus and her attendant and approach them, trying to enslave some of the soldiers. When Armida sees Rinaldo, she realizes he is the one she has been in love with. Gernando, jealous of Rinaldo’s promotion, insults Rinaldo as a womanizer. The two duel and Rinaldo kills Gernando. The soldiers turn against Rinaldo and he flees with Armida. The two then go to a ghastly forest which is transformed by Armida into a pleasure palace. Rinaldo is completely enchanted by Armida and decides he won’t leave even after Armida tells him of the plot. Meanwhile, the two knights sent to rescue Rinaldo find him after warding off nymphs trying to seduce them. They convince Rinaldo to leave with them. When Armida reaches the three soldiers, she pleads with Rinaldo, even agreeing to go into battle with him. But Renaldo eventually decides to leave. Armida then has to choose between love and vengeance; she chooses vengeance.

Conductor – Riccardo Frizza; Armida – Renee Fleming, Rinaldo – Lawrence Brownlee, Goffredo (commander of the Crusades) and his brother Eustazi – John Osborn and Yeghishe Manucharyan, Idraote – Peter Volpe, Gernando – Barry Banks (substituting for Jose Manuel Zapata, who is ill), Ubaldo – Kobie van Rensburg, Carlo – Barry Banks.

The story I summarized above is quite long, so is the opera. With two 25 or so minute intermissions, the program was 3 hours and 45 minutes. We thought we would be able to make it home by midnight, but they were fixing the helix and we had to make a longish detour, so it was close to 12:30 am when we got home. Nonetheless, it was a good opera to see.

Surprisingly, this was the first time the Met produced this opera. Tonight’s was the fifth performance. I am sure, just as with Rusalka and Thais, this was done because Renee Fleming could do it. And she did demonstrate her capability as an opera singer. We heard some people complain her voice was at times a bit weak, but I thought she had the right dynamics, managed to convey a full range of emotions, and great voice range and technique. I wish I had read the program notes beforehand as it talks about how difficult it is to do a crescendo on an ascending scale. And her appoggiaturas were handled with ease. I am sure many of the things I find amazing are within the grasp of a talented and hardworking singer, but she did put them together in one of her better than usual performances. Indeed during some instances it was tough to hear her above the orchestra or the chorus, but her voice in most instances managed to come through. I still caught a couple of instances she had to test a note (for pitch, I assume) before stressing it.

Her acting abilities were not quite up to her singing abilities, though. Now this is a pretty unusual opera in that there is only one female soloist against many male soloists (with Rinaldo being the lead). Female voices were limited to a couple of choruses. Fleming is thus called upon to carry a great chunk of the opera along, doing quite a few solos along the way. Sometimes her acting would be nothing more than waving her arms around this way or that way. I can’t fault her too much for this as the demands on her are great.

Brownlee is a young tenor from Youngstown, Ohio who did very well. If you just listen to him, you will think he is a seasoned artist, he actually debuted at the Met in 2007. Sometimes you feel he is not quite comfortable with someone with Fleming’s star power and thus acted awkwardly especially during the more intimate scenes. That will definitely improve with maturity.

One can quibble here or there, but the other singers (all male) all did quite well. I could with binoculars see how thick the conductor’s copy of music was, and it was in two volumes, if I am not mistaken. He spent as much time turning the pages as he did with waving the baton. The orchestra was at time unsteady, the solo violin during Act III was quite shaky.

The set was a bit too simple, especially by Met standards. It basically consisted of this wall with arches. To remind us the pleasure palace in Act II was only an illusion, they had a giant spider hanging on the wall. Flowers were represented by bundled up silk cloth on sticks. The only thing that looked real was the coffin of the dead leader they brought out at the beginning. The ballet scene in Act II was a bit long. Perhaps Rossini wanted to show he could write ballet music (I certainly wouldn’t have doubted him), but it didn’t add a lot to the story.

The ending of the story didn’t bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. While it showed Armida struggling between love and vengeance - represented by a dancer (Cupid) in a red dress with a bow and arrow and a bare-chested man with a scorpion’s sting as his head gear – we are not sure what the actual choice means. Will Armida pursue Rinaldo and destroy him, or will she be consumed with hatred and end up self-destructing, we are left wondering.

Overall the opera is very enjoyable with much of the music hummable. I continue to wonder why it isn’t done more often. I am sure they are many equally competent sopranos who can get the job done.

The New York Time review also describes Fleming’s performance as cautious, although the reviewer cited different examples. He is quite positive on the singers overall, but quite critical of the production. I am a bit confused as to his opinion as he called it “fanciful” at the beginning but calling the tone “unclear” later in the review.

Monday, April 12, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Antonio Pappano, Conductor; Joshua Bell, Violin. April 10, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 2 (Seat Z13, $59).

Symphony No. 31 in D major, Paris, K.297/300a (1778) by Mozart (1756-91).
Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 (1879-80) by Bruch (1838-1920).
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884-85) by Brahms (1833-97).

On our way to New York we were listening to one of Mozart's later symphonies on WQXR, and I remarked that it was a bit long for Mozart. I was “vindicated” by tonight’s Symphony as it was only 16 minutes in length per the program. It was actually a bit longer than that, perhaps a whopping 17 minutes.

Tonight’s conductor is with The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and is the youngest person to have been appointed to that position. Per Wikepedia, Pappano was born in December 1959, making him only 50 years old.

I had never seen anyone conduct Mozart with as much gusto as Pappano. He was very into it, waving his arms, shaking his legs (no kidding), moving briskly from one side of the podium to the other. The orchestra responded with a very spirited rendition of the piece. I somewhat doubted whether he needed all the motion to get the sound he wanted. However, it was a very enjoyable performance.

This symphony was written when Mozart was in Paris. In deference to French taste (I guess), the concerto has only three movements: Allegro assai, Andante, and Allegro. There was this interesting discussion on whether the second movement was the original one (which everyone had assumed until 1981) or the one revised at the request of Jean Le Gros, the director of the Concert Spirituel. I guess for someone like me the issue would be how does the other one sound like. Mozart wrote this when he was 22, after a hiatus of 3 ½ years; since this is Symphony No. 31, that means he had written 30 before he turned 19!

The Program Notes mentions that Bruch’s most famous violin work is his concerto in G minor. Since I have never seen this piece being played at the New York Philharmonic (or anywhere else for that matter), the question is why go with the Scottish Fantasy?

In any case, Bruch wrote this while he was angling for a job in Great Britain. He used may famous Scottish folk songs as the basis for this piece which is divided into four movements (or five, depending on how one counts the first one): Prelude: Grave – Adagio cantabile; Allegro; Andante sostenuto; Finale: Allegro guerriero. Perhaps it is where we sat, I found Joshua Bell and his Strad to be a bit on the weak side, not so much that I had to strain to hear him, but nonetheless I wish he had sounded clearer. This is undoubtedly a difficult piece, including a lot of double stops and harmonics; every now and then I detected an intonation problem. Looking back at my other blogs about his performances, I find out I had similar problems with him before also.

The Program Notes also contains an interesting discussion on the rivalry between the two eminent violinists of that time: Joachim and Sarasate, and that Bruch dedicated the piece to Sarasate even though Joachim was the one that gave him the most advice. One more fact, the piece when published was called “Fantasia for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, with Free Use of Scottish Folk Melodies.”

I didn’t recall what Brahm’s Fourth Symphony sounded like until I heard the opening phrases. I am quite sure I had played the piece before, but I am embarrassed to say the fourth movement didn’t sound familiar – perhaps I fell asleep during rehearsal? Pappano quieted down during the Bruch piece, but his energetic movements came back for this, which was way more appropriate than during Mozart. The Program Notes had an unusually detailed description of the movements: (i) Allegro no troppo: soaring and intense; (ii) Andante moderato: by turns agitated and serene; (iii) Allegro giocoso: first time Brahms included a real scherzo in a symphony, in contrast to the lighter allegretto intermezzos that had served as the third movements of his first three; and (iv) Allegro energico e passionate – Piu allegro: Brahms unleashes a gigantic passacaglia, a neo-Baroque structure in which an eight-measure progression (derived from the last movement of J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 150) is subjected to 32 variations of widely varying character. The last movement looks interesting on paper, except I didn’t quite hear it that way.

The audience showed a lot of enthusiasm afterwards and gave Pappano a long applause. Speaking of which, the Program Notes seems to say during Mozart’s day people would make remarks as the music was being played; unimaginable today.

The New York Times has an insightful review of the performance, although I am not sure I am in full agreement with the reviewer’s points of view.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Metropolitan Opera – Thomas’s Hamlet. March 27, 2010.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle Seat F15 ($127.50).

Story. King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s father, was poisoned by his brother Claudius with the help of Queen Gertrude and Polonius (Ophelia’s father). As Claudius prepares to marry Gertrude, the King’s ghost appears to Hamlet to ask him to avenge his death. Hamlet stages a show during the banquet during which Claudius’s reaction convinces Hamlet that he is guilty. Bent on taking revenge, Hamlet ignores Ophelia who then commits suicide. As Ophelia’s funeral procession occurs, Hamlet kills her brother Laertes and is himself wounded. He manages also to kill Claudius before he dies from his wounds.

Conductor – Louis Langree; Claudius – James Morris, Gertrude – Jennifer Larmore, Prince Hamlet – Simon Keenlyside, Ophelie – Marlis Petersen, Laerte – Toby Spence.

I saw this opera by Ambroise Thomas several years ago in Covent Garden, and really liked it. So I jumped at the opportunity to see it again. It didn’t disappoint this second time around. My overall reaction is that the opera began a bit too slowly, but the pace picked up nicely after the intermission.

The story is based on the Shakespeare play depicting how being consumed with revenge can result in alienation and destruction. The “story” above doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the plot of the opera, and the opera itself changes and edits out many aspects of the play. We still get some of the more famous lines such as “Get thee to the nunnery” and “To be or not to be.” Of course I only found out about these lines from the subtitles as I don’t understand French.

The sets are quite minimal by Met standards. They are basically variations of two wall constructions that act as props for a castle and various rooms. Ophelia committed suicide by a river/lake, but there was no water. This is the only opera I recall that uses blood during the death scenes. While I don’t remember much of the Covent Garden performance, I do recall Ophelia bled when she died.

From where I sat, most of the singing was only adequate. The one exception is Ophelia whose voice carried well, even during the softer passages. When we saw Attila several weeks ago, we were seated a few rows closer to the stage, and wondered if there was sound enhancement. Well, today’s Program Notes says “without electronic devices”; that settles it for me. Another noteworthy thing is that none of the principal singers was overweight (well, Claudius a bit on the heavy side), so they worked quite well as actors also.

During the Covent Garden performance I thought the Ophelia “mad scene” during Act IV was a bit too long, even though it was quite moving. This time I didn’t think it was too long, but my reaction was less emotional. Perhaps knowing what is coming helps.

This opera premiered in Paris in 1868, and by the Met in the 1883-84 season (on tour in Cincinnati, and sung in Italian). It was last performed in 1897, more than 110 years ago. Given the quality of the composition, and how well-known Hamlet is, it is difficult to understand why. Changing taste of the audience alone doesn’t explain it. Indeed nowadays one can find Hamlet performed at various venues; herd mentality at work?

The New York Times review goes into quite a bit of detail about the various characters.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Mariinsky Ballet – Minkus's Don Quixote. March 23, 2010.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre – Seat Stalls V31 (HK$493).

Story. Don Quixote and his aide Sancho Panza go about the world in search of heroic quests. They come to the aid of Basilio and Kitri whose love for one another is thwarted by Kitri’s father Lorenzo who favors Gamache. Basilio in a fight pretends to be dying and gets the blessing of Kitri’s father. He then marries Kitri. Don Quixote then goes in search of another quest.

Music – Ludwig Minkus; Choreographer – Alexander Gorsky after Marius Petipa; Gypsy and Oriental Dance Choreographer – Nina Anisimova; Libretto – Marius Petipa based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

Conductor – Alexei Repnikov; Kitri – Anastasia Matvienko; Basilio – Denis Matvienko; Mercedes – Ryu Ji Yeon; Queen of Dryads – Tatyana Tkachenko; Don Quixote – Vladmir Ponomarev; Sancho Panza – Stanislav Burov; Lorenzo – Audrey Iakovlev; Gamache – Soslan Kulaev.

Our friend KS had a ticket for this concert but couldn’t go, so I gladly took her ticket. I had never gone to a ballet by myself, but since I was free that evening, I thought I would give it a try. As I reported in my previous posts, ballet is an art form I have yet to understand. I can appreciate the athleticism associated with the dancers, and much ballet music can stand on its own, it’s just I haven’t quite gotten how the two combined would qualify as a music performance. Alas, tonight’s program didn't help.

The music, by a composer I had never heard of, is light-weight and inconsequential. It reminds me of much film music; it provides background mood and, in case of ballets, the beat for the dancers to dance to. While the orchestra was quite sizeable, the music did not sound substantial at all. Just a collection of saccharine melodies.

I don’t know the full story very well. I am sure (and surely hope) the story told in this ballet is only a small snippet of the entire plot. It is written in such a way that there are lots of excuses for the dancers to do their thing. This includes the dream sequence with the dryads, which in my opinion salvaged the entire ballet as it offered a chance for a classical routine, complete with women dancers in tutus.

If I recall correctly, we actually went to the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Peterburg in the early 1990s and saw the Kirov Ballet perform. At that time we were quite impressed with how precise the dancers were: all their movements seem to be in sync. My subsequent exposure to ballet has been mostly to the NYC Ballet and the ABT, and a couple of performances of The Nutcracker during the holiday season. My observation, influenced heavily by what I hear and read, is that American ballet is more about the individual and thus the group performances are a bit lacking. After seeing this performance, I would say the ABT has nothing to worry about in that department. On the other hand, the individual dancers from the troupe are quite impressive. I counted at least 32 revolutions by Kitri, and 28 or so by Basilio. As I said, I have always been impressed by the dancers’ athleticism.

The show was about 2:45 hours in length. They had to put in two intermissions of about 30 minutes each (billed as 25 minutes), one of them after a 25-minute performance. Many in the audience thought they could have moved on at a faster pace. The sets and costumes were quite elaborate. They even had a white horse appear twice. During the second intermission I had to go to the 7-11 down the street to buy a sandwich, and saw the white horse being carted away in a jockey club trailer.

Overall, Don Quixote is like Le Cosair. Both are written so dancers can have excuses to show their craft. Except in the case of Don Quixote, the comparison with the Broadway show “The Man from La Mancha” is inevitable. We saw this a few years ago, the story is quite forgettable, with Don Quixote also holding forth his sword/lance in a rather asinine fashion. However, in the musical there are at least several nice tunes, including the well-known “To dream an impossible dream.”

This performance was part of the 38th Hong Kong Arts Festival. I wonder if it is worth it to visit Hong Kong during this time next year?