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.

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