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.