Sunday, February 28, 2010

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – Riccardo Chailly, Conductor. Louis Lortie, Piano. February 28, 2010.

Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Section CB2 (Row E, Seat 114, $37).

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11 (1830) by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849).
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 (1877) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

[Note: some additional comments added on 3/1/2010.]

Chung Shu & Shirley told us about the concert, and the drive up to NYC was quite easy today. Carnegie Hall is quite impressive inside, has much better acoustics than Avery Fisher Hall, but not without its short falls. The most obvious ones are not much space outside of the auditorium, little legroom in the seating area, and inadequate number of washrooms. At times the orchestra sound while clearly distinguishable, sounded a bit dull also, I wonder if it is the acoustics or the orchestra.

The orchestra claims to be the oldest civic concert orchestra in the world. It began in 1743 and given its current name in 1781 when it moved into the meetinghouse of the textile merchants (the “Gewandhaus”). Whatever the qualifying words after “oldest” mean, its still quite impressive. And it counts among its music directors Felix Mendelssohn and Bruno Walter.

Chopin’s Piano Concertos are familiar repertoire pieces, easy to listen to (not necessarily to play) and enjoy. Today’s performance was no exception. The first movement (Allegro maestoso) began with a longish introduction by the orchestra that was played crisply and with great dynamics. The piano also didn’t disappoint. Unfortunately the level was not matched by the second (Romance: Larghetto) and third (Rondo: Vivace) movements. The slow dreamlike movement instead of sounding muted was at times muddled, probably from too much pedaling. The good acoustics actually worked to the disadvantage of the orchestra in the third movement where every mistake a member made was amplified by the stage. There were too many instances of an instrument (usually the violin) playing too loudly, or coming in too fast, or the orchestra not ending a note precisely. I guess there were many pianists in the audience, and too many of them were moving with the music. It’s annoying when you notice them, and I also wonder how many of them think they can do a better job at the piece.

Louis Lortie played one of Chopin’s Nocturnes as an encore. [Note: A commenter on the blog states that this is a Chopin Etude.]

I played the Brahms Symphony as a member of Cornell Symphony in the mid 70s. Come to think of it, it may actually be at Carnegie Hall as part of our centennial tour! Although I haven’t heard it much since, I am still reasonably familiar with it. The four movements are (i) Allegro non troppo; (ii) Adagio non troppo); (iii) Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) and (iv) Allegro con spirito. The performance did not get off to an auspicious start with the unsteady French Horns. It did improve to a certain extent as the piece went on. However, there were quite a few fast passages that sounded out of control, verging on chaotic. The last movement (or more precisely, the last part of the last movement) was done well and generated tremendous applause. I don’t know if I missed the greatness of the performance, or this is a case of “this is Carnegie Hall, so everyone who plays here must be good.”

The orchestra played a Beethoven Egmont Overture as an encore. I actually appreciated this more than the actual performance.

One other thing, the same guy (I assume it is the regular concertmaster) led the orchestra for both the concerto and the symphony. There was none of this excusing oneself in deference of the guest soloist business. I wonder if this practice is limited to a few orchestras, or is suspended you are on tour. I guess I need to be a NY Phil groupie and see them during a tour to find out! Or wait for the BSO to play in our area.

New York Philharmonic – David Robertson, Conductor; Gil Shaham, Violin. February 27, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat V5, $58).

Suite from Ma Mere I’Oye (Mother Goose) (1908-1910; 1911) by Ravel (18751937).
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 (1939-49/1948) by Barber (1910-81).
The Wooden Prince: A Dancing-Play in One Act, to a Libretto by Bela Balazs, Op. 13 (1914-17) by Bartok (1881-1945).

This is on paper an interesting program, it consists of relatively obscure pieces all composed during the 20th century. One of the pieces (one by Bartok) had only been performed by the New York Philharmonic once, and that was in 1975.

The Ravel piece consists of five movements: Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty; Tom Thumb; Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas; Conversations of Beauty and the Beast; and Apotheosis, the Enchanted Garden. It was originally written as a piano four hands for two of Ravel’s family friends but they were too shy to perform it in public, so the premiere was done by someone else. A few years later Ravel scored the piece for an orchestra.

The first three movements were kind of so-so, with not much happening. Pavanes are usually pleasant sounding slow dances, tonight’s wasn’t all that noticeable. The dynamics were quite a bit marked during the last two movements, they felt a bit incongruent given how the first three movements sounded though. We heard this piece conducted by Maazel in September, 2008. Looking back at that review, I have to conclude (on the basis of that review alone, since I have no recollection of the performance) tonight’s was probably an improvement. In Maazel’s defense, the New York Times, in one of its rare praises for him, describes the performance as a “beautifully constrained account.”

The Program Notes are not kind to Barber’s Violin Conerto, even though there is quite a bit of hedging in the writeup. There is an interesting dustup between Samuel Fels, who commissioned the concerto, and Barber on whether the concerto was good enough or too difficult for the intended soloist Iso Briselli. In any case, Barber got his $1000, and Briselli also got vindicated somehow. The overall impression it got me was two movements that were too simple (Allegro and Andante) and one that was virtuoso but short and didn’t quite belong (Presto in moto perpetuo).

So, I decided to listen with an open mind, even though I didn’t know if that was possible given the bias that had already formed in my opinion. The overall performance was much better than expected, though far from either brilliant or deeply musical. Shaham’s Stradivarius somehow got overwhelmed often by the orchestra, and his play just sounded a bit off. Overall it was an acceptable performance, but I expected a better overall experience than I got today. We were seated in Row V which had a good view of the stage (especially with binoculars). While standing there idle Shaham had this hunched stance and an open mouth; he was all serious when he was playing, though, and moved back and forth quite a bit.

The story behind Bartok’s The Wooden Prince is quite simple. A prince falls in love with a princess and tries to draw her attention with his wooden staff carved into a puppet. The princess keeps on ignoring it until he adorns the staff sequentially with his robe, his crown, and finally his hair. And then she falls in love with the wooden prince much to the prince’s dismay. A Fairy takes pity on him and makes him attractive to the princess. Now the princess has to sacrifice her crown before they can fall in love. This is done in many scenes played without interruption: [Prelude]; Dance of the Princess in the Forest; Dance of the Trees; Dance of the Waves; Dance of the Princess with the Wooden Puppet; The Princess Pulls and Tugs at Him (the Wooden Prince) and Tries to Make Him Dance; She Tries to Attract Him (the Real Prince) with a Seductive Dance; Frightened, the Princess Attempts to Hasten to Him (the Real Prince) but the Forest Stops Her; [Postlude].

The scenario creator Bela Balazs likens this to a woman preferring the poem to the poet, or the picture to the painter.

As with the first two pieces, I also didn’t know what to expect of this piece. Bartok has three pieces for the stage, and I have also heard The Miraculous Mandarin before (a couple of times, actually.) This is relatively long at an advertised 45 minutes (a bit longer in actuality). We were quite pleasantly surprised that the libretto (per the New York Times, the original scenario of Balazs) was displayed as the music was played, so we could clearly correlate the action in the orchestra with what we could imagine was going on. I can see how a creative choreographer can then turn this into movements, a stage designer to sketch out the scenery, and the director to put the ballet together. The downside is the words illustrate how silly the story is (“contorted” is the word used in the Program Notes.) Since most of my jet-lagged brain was used to imagine the scenes and dance movements, not enough was left to appreciate or analyze the music itself. Overall though, I didn’t come away very satisfied as I kept telling myself it was a stupid story.

So tonight’s was a program that had a potential to be of great appeal but ended up not living up to that potential. Using my newly coined analogy in comparing disappointing meals with disappointing music performances, this is better than a disappointing meal.

Anne and I both thought the applause at the conclusion was only lukewarm. The New York Times review was very positive. Naturally, as this is a publication that would have liked Robertson to be the successor to Maazel.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Opera Australia – Puccini’s Tosca. February 16, 2010.

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Circle (Seat N25, A$105).

Story: See earlier post.

Conductor – Tom Woods; Tosca – Nicole Youl, Cavaradossi – Carlo Barricelli, Scarpia – John Wegner.

Six of us went to see this show: Anne & me, Steven & Ruth, Tim & Alyson. We had the exact same seats as the last show, and again there were quite a few empty seats in the circle. This time the usher invited us to move up front, so we watched the entire show in seats in Row L. At a price difference of about $40 per ticket, we can tell ourselves we saved $240!

Anne had been reading several write-ups on the production. “Raw” seems to be the term used most often. I expected a graphic rape scene. The show did depict a more explicit sex act (Scarpia in his boxer shorts and Tosca in her slip), but the word raw more aptly describes the dreamlike state the director wants to produce but unfortunately by-and-large fails to accomplish. More on this later.

The opera didn’t start too auspiciously with Cavaradossi’s tentative singing of the first aria (Recondita armonia). After hearing a couple of his missed notes, I was worried how he was going to last the entire opera. A good thing it was probably a case of the nerves since he improved as the show went on. Nonetheless, Barricelli’s overall performance was not that impressive. Interesting, this was the aria that got most applause afterwards. Australians are not into interrupting with applause, but tonight the reluctance was particularly evident. Could it also be due to their not quite knowing what was going on, or their displeasure?

One moral of the opera is that bad things happen to otherwise ordinary people. Even though we knew things were brewing as Cavaradossi was trying to hide a fugitive, the show began innocuous enough: two people in love with the requisite jealousy shown by Tosca. This show did that quite well.

Youl as Tosca in general has a strong voice that carried well. However, the rendition of “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” was quite weak, a pity since this for most is the highlight of the opera. Since we were seated quite far back, I didn’t have a good look of Tosca, thus the strongest impression I got was that she was quite overweight. I worried that she would trip or collapse the chair she was standing on. Okay overall, but certainly not great.

Scarpia was played quite brilliantly by Wegner. It probably isn’t difficult to get the audience to hate you as Scarpia, and he succeeded brilliantly.

Act III was particularly “interesting,” although - in my opinion and that of others in our group – not in a good sort of way. Instead of things happening in real time, what we had was a fantasy (or dream) sequence experienced by Tosca before she herself was executed by a shot in the head. The director felt the need to explain this in the Program Notes, but the synopsis still carried the traditional story, so I think many in the audience got quite confused. It took me a while to understand how the story was being told. The effect just seemed half-hearted and amateurish. Perhaps the use of a projection screen to display various images (a la Met’s Damnation of Faust), more eerie lighting, and other effects can help make it more of a fantasy sequence.

I don’t understand the need to do things of this sort. The story is compelling enough and in any case should stand or fall on its own merits rather than with the help of people who think they know better. The director’s notes also talks about many bodies strewn on stage, which turned out to be an exaggeration: we have the (fake) body of Angelotti, his sister who may or may not be dead (who is actually a shepherd boy in the “original,” and why is she up on top of the cupboard?), Scarpia, and Cavaradossi. Using the basement of a church for the entire opera also didn’t work that well. As we saw on Saturday in Manon, Opera Australia is certainly capable of making elaborate scene changes professionally, so staying with one scene was not needed. One more head-scratching thing was this TV that kept playing in the room next to the basement.

I saw Tosca a few years back with the NYC Opera and enjoyed it tremendously. This doesn’t nearly measure up in terms of the total experience. Indeed I can’t think of any aspect of tonight’s performance that measures up. We are talking NYC Opera, not the Met, although that was one of the better performances I have seen of NYC Opera.

What I said about Manon applies here also: despite my misgivings, I enjoyed the opera. Another observation: a disappointing opera is usually better than a disappointing meal. Earlier the week we had the experience of eating a A$75 two-course lunch at the Quay, that’s when I discovered this way to describe a disappointing meal not worth the money. Pretty clever, if I may say so myself.

Opera Australia – Massenet’s Manon. February 13, 2010.

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Circle (Seat N25, A$115).

Story. Manon, on her way to a convent, is persuaded by Des Grieux to run off with him to Paris. They are eventually tracked down by Manon’s nephew Lescaut and admirer De Bretigny. They tell Manon Des Grieux will be kidnapped by his father who disapproves of their relationship, and De Bretigny promises Manon a life of luxury. Manon chooses not to warn Des Grieux and goes to De Bretigny. Des Grieux intends to become a monk at St. Sulpice. Manon goes to visit him and persuades Des Grieux to abandon his vows and rejoin her. When Des Grieux runs out of money he inherited from his mother, Manon gets him to gamble agains Guillot de Morfontaine. Guillot de Morfontaine accuses Des Grieux and Manon of cheating and calls the police on them. Des Grieux is saved by his father, but Manon is detained. On her way to deportation to the colonies, Manon is rescued by her cousin Lescaut who bribes a guard. She reunites with Des Grieux but dies in his arms.

Conductor – Emmanuel Plasson; Guillot de Morfontaine – Kanen Breen, De Bretigny – Richard Anderson, Manon – Amelia Farrugia, Le Chevalier Des Grieux – Julian Gavin.

We were hoping to eat a reasonable dinner before seeing this opera. Unfortunately I woke up from my (jet-lag) nap a bit too late, so we had to rush to the Opera House and gulped down a meat pie and a sausage roll (between the two of us) in a hurry. I did get a whopper afterwards though.

There were quite a few empty seats in the hall, which was surprising as all the other operas I attended at the Opera House were quite full. In fact we moved up three rows after the intermission. I wonder if it is the economy (supposedly Australia has a very low unemployment rate), the time (Saturday evening), or the relatively obscurity of the Opera (relatively well-known, but who knows, after all this is the first time I see it.)

The sets are quite elaborate. There are quite a few changes in scenery, all done efficiently and quietly.

Both lead players (Manon and Des Grieux) have great voices. However, most of the time they seem to need to belt out their lines. There were a few exceptions in Manon’s case, so we know she can capture the audience with soft high notes, but somehow she doesn’t do it enough (in my opinion, many passages call for it.) Even seated in the second to last row in the theater, we could hear the singers very well. Either the place has great acoustics, or they have some sound enhancement system at work. Local write-ups seem to say Farrugia is an up and coming Australian singer; and I can see that.

The story must be well-known enough that at least a couple of operas have been written based on the play. However, what we see during the opera doesn’t quite hang together well enough to get complete audience engagement. As I put it, “a lot of things are happening offstage.” Or there just not enough time to develop the characters so one can understand why they do the things they do. Also, there is quite a bit of parallel between Manon and Violetta of La Traviata. Both are pleasure-seeking women (although Manon isn’t a courtesan, even though she is accused as such), both leading men have fathers that don’t approve of the relationship, and both women end up dying. The death scene in Manon is a bit drawn out, and since there is not a lot of emotional investment in the character by the audience, I am sure many in the audience would say “just die already.”

Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed the performance.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Metropolitan Opera – Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. February 4, 2010.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle Seat D106 ($97.50).

Story. This opera has a very interesting structure, a prolog and an opera in one act. The prolog is comic. The richest man in Vienna engages an opera company and a comedy troupe to perform at his house. He eventually changes his mind and wants the abridged versions of the performances performed together so he can start the fireworks celebration in time. This gets both companies upset, with everyone suggesting the others’ parts be cut. The opera is mostly serious, with a bit of comedy thrown in. Ariadne is abandoned by her long-time lover Theseus on an island, and wishes for Hermes the god of death. Instead another god Bacchus shows up in a ship. Ariadne first thinks he is Hermes, then Theseus, and finally realizes he is someone else. After some soul-searching, she joins Bacchus and ascends to heaven. During Ariadne’s internal struggle, Zerbinetta from the comedy troupe shows up and tells her she should move on.

Conductor – Kirill Petrenko; The Composer – Sarah Connolly, Bacchus/The Tenor – Michael Hendrick, Zerbinetta – Kathleen Kim, Ariadne/The Prima Donna – Nina Stemme.

Last week (I am writing this on Sunday) was restaurant week in New York. We booked ourselves into Ed’s Chowder House in the Empire Hotel across from Lincoln Center. At $35 per person for a 3-course meal it sounded like a bargain. Anne had the cod cakes, risotto, and apple crumbs; I had the clam chowder soup, skate, and apple crumbs. With a bottle of sparkling water and one decaf coffee total bill came to about $90, before gratuities. Not a bad meal – and we were full – but these limited menu items tend not to be the most exciting offerings from the restaurant; we are not tempted to go back and pay (say) $60 per person for a regular meal. We were in the back room with two other large parties, and it got quite noisy even though they were all women (except for one lucky/unlucky guy). Another couple asked to be reseated which the restaurant was happy to oblige. The service actually was quite good.

Back to the opera. In theory the structure of talking about how operas are put out and description of behind-the-scenes action can result in an interesting experience for the audience. I am not sure this worked out very well, though. The story of Ariadne itself is quite serious, but the fact that we know it is just a show detracts from one’s emotional involvement; unfortunately you don’t think you should laugh either, so you sit there just trying to enjoy the music.

The set for the prolog is quite interesting, the lower half is where the actors and singers go about their business of chatting and arguing, the upper left quadrant is a staircase of the castle, and the upper right quadrant is the stage at the castle, looking into the audience. So you get to set the actors from the back and realize instead of being on stilts, the actor is actually standing on a platform. This helps explain how the three women singers move around on stage. The set for the opera itself is relatively simple, although by raising and lowering different curtains it produces a very pleasing effect.

Both Ariadne and Zerbinetta sang very well. They both have long and challenges passages in the opera, and both got well-deserved applauses from the audience (usually not done with German operas.) Ariadne has a more mature voice. Kathleen Kim looks to be quite young. She had her Met debut in 2007, and for this season is playing three rather important roles (this, Papagena in The Magic Flute, and Olympia in The Tales of Hoffman. Must be one of the upcoming superstars. The tenor originally scheduled to sing the role of Bacchus was sick, and his substitute had a cold but tried to perform nonetheless. It was a painful sight to see him struggle with the higher notes. Perhaps we can’t fault anyone for this happening, but it is still a pity. The role of the young composer was sung by a woman, which confuses me to no end.

There was a sex scene that was a bit crude and I’m sure made many in the audience uncomfortable. And I am not sure the opera needs it. Many people sitting close to us were looking into the box area where members of the Opera Guild sit. These are all people who contribute substantially to the Met and they make sure people know that by dressing in tuxedos and fancy dresses. There was a lady that everyone was sure had a lot of plastic surgery, and she wore a dress with a wide sash that had to be pinned to her bottom. I am sure she’s glad all her surgery expenses are paying off, at least as far as being noticed goes. Good thing an opera crowd never gets too mean.

I have seen three Strauss operas (Capriccio and Helen of Egypt are the other two) and fail to see heads or tails with any of them. There are always some better known ones that I should see so I will appreciate Strauss as an opera composer. These would be Salome, Der Rosenkavalier, and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Well, I’m not so sure I’ll ever get to that point …

Oh, falling asleep during the show didn’t help either. I woke up early that day, and had a relatively heavy dinner. At least I didn’t snore like the lady next to me. This was one of the least attended Met performances I have been to, both sides of the dress circle were not occupied. We didn’t see them trying to sell half price tickets, though.

The New York Times reviewer saw the same performance. He says Hendrick is an experience Bacchus, so it is really too bad he had the cold. And the reviewer is quite forgiving and is particularly impressed with Stemme's singing. Nonetheless, his overall grade for the opera is about the same as mine.