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.