Saturday, January 30, 2010

New York City Ballet – Tschaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, January 29, 2010.

David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center – Second Ring Right, Seat BB26 ($47).

Conductor – Clotilde Otranto; The Lilac Fairy – Teresa Reichlen, The Fairy Carabosse – Jenifer Ringer, Princess Aurora – Sterling Hyltin, Prince Desire – Jonathan Stafford.

Story: At the christening of Princess Aurora, various fairies came to give their blessings. Carabosse, who isn’t invited, barges in an puts a curse on the Princess: she will prick her finger on a spindle on her 16th birthday and die. Lilac counters that curse and says Aurora will only fall asleep and will be awakened by the kiss of a loving prince. Thus it happens on Aurora’s 16th birthday, when the spindle is given to Aurora hidden in a bouquet by Carabosse. She and the rest of the court falls asleep for 100 years. Prince Desire is alone during a hunt, and Lilac shows up and tells him to rescue Aurora. He kisses her, she and the court all wake up, and Aurora and Desire get married.

Ellie was in town for the weekend from San Francisco, so we (Ellie, Kuau, Anne and myself) took advantage of the Goldstar discount to see this ballet. We gulped down a pizza before we headed off to the train station. It was a very cold day, but we weren’t outside for too long.

One thing I forgot to mention in my last entry was that the Koch Theater had just undergone an extensive renovation costing in the neighborhood of $50M; “extensive” probably is a better description. The seats and the bathrooms look new, and that’s about it. Perhaps they did something about the acoustics, sound, and lighting system; but I would be hard-pressed to point out any differences. To be fair, I have seen only two ballets since the renovation was completed, so I may not be in a great position to comment on the improvements, or lack thereof. Perhaps each seat costs $10,000, otherwise I don’t know where they spent the money. The seats are nice, but not nearly that nice!

Which brings me to the music. Today’s orchestra performance didn’t sound nearly as exciting as last time (Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.) In fact it was lackluster during Act I Scene 1; the performance improved as the show progressed, but overall it was timid, lacking in dynamic range and emotion, and surprisingly un-romantic for Tchaikovsky. The Sleeping Beauty is one of the composer’s better known pieces and there are some familiar melodies, I wonder what a great performance (with or without the dancers) would sound like.

Perhaps I shouldn’t expect too much drama in the ballet. The story is well-known, and straightforward. The ballet, in my opinion, was written to showcase the ability and artistry of the dancers. Unfortunately I look for drama where there isn’t much, and thus am deservedly disappointed. There are many instances where different dancers would come out and do their number (e.g., different fairies blessing Princess Aurora.) Enjoyable if you appreciate ballet dancing, boring if you want the story to move forward. Actually the choreographer seems to want to imbue each of the fairies with a distinct character, which reminds me of what Wagner did with the various “hildas” in the Ring operas. This would be something only an avid fan would notice, or care about.

There are some light moments provided by little riding hood and the big bad wolf. I don’t know how that fits into the story, and wonder if this is what Tchaikovsky (or whoever did this in the original libretto) had the roles written as such.

The dancers seemed to put on a better performance than Romeo and Juliet, though. The choreography isn’t as athletic as Romeo and Juliet, and sometimes the movements seemed a little rushed. There were a few instances the dancers failed to “nailed the landing,” to borrow a phrase from gymnastics.

I have seen three of Tchaikovsky’s ballets (Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty). Of the three, Swan Lake is most enjoyable. This show certainly hasn’t made me a fan of the genre, though.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

New York City Ballet – Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, January 21, 2010.

David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center – Second Ring Right, Seat D12 ($47).

Conductor – Faycal Karoui; Juliet – Kathryn Morgan, Romeo – Robert Fairchild, Mercutio – Daniel Ulbricht, Benvolio – Antonio Carmena, Tybalt – Joaquin De Luz, Nurse – Georgina Pazcoguin, Lady Capulet – Darci Kistler, Lord Capulet – Jock Soto, Paris – Adrian Danchig-Waring.

Story: See previous blog.

I bought these tickets through Goldstar at about ½ price. It ended up costing $54.50 per ticket including service charges, which is a good deal. I then found out I had seen this performance before, in early 2008! Nonetheless, we decided to see the show again.

The set looked familiar, much of the music (except a couple of familiar tunes) sounded new, and the story was basically as I remembered it. The set was at first glance an unremarkable center piece that turns into different sceneries called for by the story: house, courtyard, church, tomb, bedroom, etc. It certainly looked simple, but I wonder if the design had to be very clever to accommodate all the different settings. The music is enjoyable, especially the passages that contain familiar tunes. I said many times Prokofiev’s music needs many hearings to grow on me, but this is an exception. The music would be great by itself played by a competent orchestra. Tonight the orchestra was very competent.

At the beginning of the performance the announcer said there would be a substitute for Romeo. This must be difficult to do as there must be a lot of coordination between the particular dancers. I am sure the substitute (standby, understudy, whatever) hadn’t had enough real practice to do the performance well. But I would be hard-pressed to point to any instance where Romeo messed up. It may well be I don’t know what to look for as I am an inexperienced ballet goer.

Kathryn Morgan, who played Juliet, looked very young. Actually she doesn’t appear on the roster as a principal dancer. I thought her performance was good also. The nanny provided some light moments in the otherwise serious story.

Overall, though, this performance didn’t elicit as much an emotion response as the one I saw a couple of years ago. Is it familiarity, or is it because there is a difference in caliber? I can’t tell.

We drove into town mid-afternoon and stopped by the New York Boat Show held at the Javits Center for 90 minutes or so. The show was much scaled down compared to prior ones, a reflection on the economy and how poorly the boat industry is doing, no doubt. We then went to Korean town and had dinner at Wo Jon Restaurant before seeing the show.

The New York Times review (different dancers) is nearly as brutal as the one from two years ago. After reading it, I realized Fairchild has the role of Romeo for other performances during the season, and thus was quite familiar with what needed to be done.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. January 8, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat BB11, $59).

Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 (1912-13/1924) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-08) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

Chung Shu drove us into New York. It took us more than 90 minutes to get to Lincoln Tunnel from our house, so we were quite surprised to see how empty the city looked when we exited the tunnel. Except for a long line of buses, there were very few cars on the road. We grabbed a quick dinner at Ollie’s before the concert.

After an exciting beginning, the first movement (Andantino – Allegretto - Andantino) of the Prokofiev concerto became a bit non-descriptively for me so I had to make sure I didn’t doze off. But that was only for a short while; I was riveted through the rest of the piece. The pianist soon launched into a long solo/cadenza passage and was eventually joined by the orchestra to finish the movement. The second movement is marked Scherzo (Scherzo: Vivace) but it was more like a virtuoso piece for the pianist that was brilliant but not necessarily humorous. The duet with the clarinet was fascinating both technically and contrapuntally. The clarinet was played by an Asian gentleman that we had not seen before; and we couldn’t find any Asian clarinetist in the orchestra roster. In any case, he was congratulated by the principal bassoonist after he was done; many in the audience undoubtedly breathed a sign of relief and admiration. The third moment, called an intermezzo (Intermezzo: Allegro moderato), is nothing like an intermezzo Brahms would have written. It was more like a march. The fourth movement (Finale: Allegro tempestoso) brought the performance to a climatic conclusion. The audience showed their appreciation with a prolonged applause; Bronfman came out several times.

I like Prokofiev, but usually only after I have heard a piece several times since his music is a bit “deep” for me to appreciate upon first hearing. This is an exception. Perhaps it’s because he wrote it when he was only 21 and thus had not developed his complex structures yet? Believe me, the piece is complex enough.

Several other interesting facts. The music was destroyed in a fire while Prokofiev was overseas, and he rewrote it from his memory and sketches more than ten years later. So this may or may not be close to the “original.” Indeed Prokofiev claimed he had incorporated new material in the work. Like Ravel, Prokofiev wasn’t sure he could play his only composition either, but he managed to do it, to mixed reviews, though.

Rachmaninoff only predated Prokofiev by about 12 years, but his music was still basically romantic. The program notes thinks this Symphony can be considered the last grand romantic symphony. It is a bit long at 58 minutes.

The negative reception to Rachmaninoff’s first symphony was so poor that he needed a psychologist and hypnosis to get him back into composing. Evidently he had great counselors as the second symphony is a beautiful piece of music. The orchestration is such that the sounds are very rich, and the melodies are very pleasant.

The tempo markings for the first two movements are Largo – Allegro moderato and Allegro molto – Meno mosso – Tempo I. The third movement (Adagio) is very familiar. Again the clarinet played an important role. The melody is very singable, melancholic, and has a yearning quality to it. Many symphonies have slow movements that may be nice but are not exceptional compared to other movements. Notable exceptions are Beethoven’s Seventh, Mahler’s Fifth, and this one.

Interestingly, the theme from the third movement was used again in the last movement (Allegro vivace – Adagio – Tempo precedente). Perhaps Rachmaninoff liked it very much and wanted to hear it again himself!

Alan Gilbert notes in the Program that the pieces were written by Russian composers and the soloist is from Russia, and that the audience would enjoy the evening. (Bronfman was born in Russia and moved to Israel in 1973.) He was absolutely right, tonight ranks as one of the most enjoyable concerts I have been to. I left very happy. It was a very cold night (below freezing, and windy); if we had some snow, it would have been a perfect Moscow winter evening.

Just as I was beginning to doubt how Gilbert would work out as the music director, we have this performance which must be very reassuring to his supporters.

The New York Times review is all-positive. It is unfortunate the reviewer feels the need to implicitly criticize Gilbert's predecessor.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Cirque du Soleil - Wintuk. January 2, 2010.

Madison Square Garden. Section 203 (Seat X10, $72.50).

This is supposed to be a half price offer from New York Times (full price $110), however, after adding the convenience and facility fees, we ended up paying $72.50 for each ticket; plus an order handling charge.

Ellie & Kuau saw a couple of Cirque shows when they were in Las Vegas, and they like it. Anne & I only attempted to go once (in Orlando) but the show we wanted to see was sold out.

The stage was bigger than I thought, and there were only six live musicians who managed to produce a rich sound. I know there was some pre-recorded music (e.g., during curtain call) but wonder if they used any during the show. However, the music was pretty lame.

We saw Varekai on DVD a couple of days before this show, which set our expectations somewhat in terms of staging and the acrobatics involved. Wintuk didn't quite live up to Varekai on either count. For one, there were not too mnay high-wire acts, one reason is that the clearance on the stage is quite low. The closest they came to a high wire act were two ladies hanging from ropes. There are some acts that are quite difficult, including juggling with 8 tennis balls, rag doll, and bicycle dances. No being experience circus (or whatever) goers, we sometimes had trouble finding where the "act" was. With a DVD recording the producer makes sure the acts are front and center.

There is a bit more of a story in Wintuk than Varekai. The concept is similar to The Nutcracker in that the principals are transported to a fantasy land where various dream-like acts take place.

While this kind of show doesn't appeal to me, I have to marvel at the creativity that brings this about, the technical challenges to put it together, and the doubtless hours of rehearsal that result in a performance with very few mistakes.

A show that is probably okay at 1/2 price. Nonetheless, I am not sure how eager I am to see another one.