Friday, December 30, 2011

Metropolitan Opera - Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. December 26, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Balcony F116 ($52.50).

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor - Robin Ticciati; Gretel - Aleksandra Kurzak, Hansel - Alice Coote, Gertrude - Michaela Martens, Peter - Dwayne Croft, The Sandman - Jennifer Johnson Cano, The Dew Fairy - Ashley Emerson, The Witch - Robert Brubaker.

We attended this opera with our children and their spouses.  Everyone is quite up to it, except for Joe whose love of Broadway musicals doesn't seem to extend to operas.  H&G isn't my first choice as an introductory opera (that would be Carmen, La Traviata, or one of Puccini's), but the other available choices are Faust and La Fille du Regiment.  Joe and Jess went up to New York earlier that day (they would stay the night there); Anne, Ellie and Kuau drove up at around 4 pm and had dinner in the area; and I took the 5:15 pm train from Metropark and met up with the five of them at the Opera House.  I stayed behind to ensure Joe and Jess's dog Ruby was okay; she had just spent the prior night at a Vet Emergency Hospital after ingesting two bars of dark chocolate, which is evidently quite toxic to dogs.

We saw H&G put out by New York City Opera in 2006.  Those were my early concert blogging days (it was number 43 or so out of the two hundred plus I have done so far), so I look back at my review with a certain degree of amusement.  Unfortunately, this review isn't going to be that much more insightful than the one I wrote five years ago.

First the sets.  One would assume the sets put out by the Met will be quite a bit more elaborate than those by NYCO.  It is debatable in this case.  The Playbill provides an interesting insight into the three kitchens designed for the three acts.  Act 1 happens in a D.H. Lawrence-inspired kitchen setting, Act 2 in a German Expressionist one, and Act 3 is in a Theater of the Absurd.  Good on paper, and brilliant perhaps to someone into this sort of stuff, but for someone like myself, nothing of the sort.

This is my assessment. Act 1 takes place in a kitchen, of unknown period.  Both the simplicity and the grayness can be attributed to the family's being poor and don't need to have anything to do with D.H. Lawrence.  (Since I don't know much about the subject, I did a web search of his paintings, and still have no idea how this kitchen relates to him.)  Act 2 is basically a long dining table inside a larger room.  There are trees that move, I assume they represent ghouls Hansel and Gretel encounter.  The 14 angels are represented by overweight cooks who would strike fear in anyone who sees them.  And what is the fish doing there?  Perhaps these are elements of German Expressionism?  The only thing absurd about Act 3 is the food fight that starts with the Witch's head pushed into a pie and his face is all covered with icing afterwards.  To me resorting to physical comedy of this sort smacks more of desperation than genius.

The music is generally easy to understand.  While Humperdinck adopted many of his mentor Wagner's techniques, it is much easier to trace how his themes are developed as the Opera unfolds.  The overture was crisp and pleasant, but there are times the music got a bit muddled, which is a bit surprising given that it doesn't sound that complicated.  Joe was marveling at how clear the singing sounded without the aid of a sound system, and in general that is quite true: the singing comes across very well.  It is interesting when the singers are in front of a curtain, their voices don't carry too well, probably because the curtain material doesn't resonate well.

We again have a woman singing the role of a young Hansel.  I guess it doesn't matter who is singing which part, and since Hansel is a young boy, his voice is probably in the treble range anyway.  We heard Alice Coote in Elijah before; she didn't leave a lasting impression then, and she didn't leave one today either.  To confuse the audience further, a man played the witch dressed in woman's gear.  The advantage is that it allowed the choreographer to put in a few crude comic moments (yes, I used the word "crude.")

I am a bit surprised at how negative I end up being with this performance.  Perhaps it is due to my high expectations going in: this is the Met, so it has to be much better than what I remember of the NYCO.  Another reason for disappointment is one would think after reading the Playbill that this will be an impressive opera at many different levels.  Instead I find it wanting at many different levels.

The New York Times review is very enthusiastic.  The performance reviewed had a different singer playing Hansel.  I attribute the enthusiasm at least partially to a charitable holiday spirit.  Who wants to say "There is no Santa Claus" this time of the year?  The reviewer also pointed out that the 28-year old conductor Ticciati is one of the youngest to debut at the Met.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Metropolitan Opera – Gounod’s Faust. December 20, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle D208 ($37.50).

Story.  The aging scientist Faust makes a deal with the devil Mephistopheles to recapture his youth in return for having Mephistopheles as his master in the world below; this after Faust sees the image of Marguerite conjured up by Mephistopheles.  While Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, and Wagner are preparing to go to war, Mephistopheles shows up and predicts the death of Wagner in battle, of Valentin by someone close to Mephistopheles; and that any flowers Siebel picks up will wither.  Mephistopheles then brings Faust to see Marguerite.  Siebel gathers flowers for Marguerite and they wither, holy water however restores them.  After leaving a box full of jewels for Marguerite, Mephistopheles helps Faust to seduce her, and she becomes pregnant.  When Valentin returns from battle, he fights with Faust and is killed, with Marguerite watching.  Marguerite kills her baby and is condemned to death.  Faust and Mephistopheles go to the prison to see Marguerite who dies.  Faust and Mephistopheles go down to the underworld but Marguerite is saved.

Conductor – Yannick Nezet-Seguin; Faust – Jonas Kaufmann, Marguerite – Marina Poplavskaya, Mephistopheles – Rene Pape, Wagner – Jonathan Beyer, Valentin – Russel Braun, Siebel – Michele Losier, Marthe – Theodora Hanslowe.

I heard the ending of this opera when listening to WQXR’s opera broadcast.  The announcer gave a very vivid description of the ending where Faust and Mephistopheles descended t hell and Marguerite climbed up a staircase.  She also talked about the people in lab coats becoming angels during the last scene.  When I read the New YorkTimes review, I was less impressed.  The review wasn’t all that positive, and the setting was between world wars when Faust was a scientist developing a nuclear bomb.  Eventually curiosity got the better part of us, and reasonable good seats in the Family Circle were available.

Jonas Kaufmann must be the tenor-du-jour for the Met this year (or is it tenor-du-annee?), there is no escape if you pick up a recent copy of the Playbill, and his picture is plastered all over inside and outside Lincoln Center.  This is also a reason I wanted to see this opera.  I remember a similar situation with Dudamel the conductor, in that case I was quite impressed with him.  Alas, that is not the case here.  His voice for the most part did not carry well into the rear of the opera.  Sometimes this could be attributed to the acoustics of the specific seat; but every now and then he would do okay, and many others' voices came through clearly.  To be charitable, perhaps tonight he was a bit (or way) off.

Rene Pape is a dependable bass and did quite okay.  There are quite a few grotesque figures in the opera, so there was no intention of white-washing the evilness of Satan; yet Pape didn’t sound or look menacing at all.  One can go overboard trying to play the bad guy, but it is a greater failure if the audience doesn’t feel the slightest bit of disgust at the devil’s deviousness, as was the case tonight.

I enjoyed Marguerite’s voice.  As with Pape, her acting did not elicit the expected emotion.  Her role is someone caught up in other people’s actions and had no escape except for the final redemption scene.  I felt no pity, no horror, and no relief when she in turn was abandoned by Faust, killed her baby, and ascended to heaven.

Siebel, a young pupil of Faust, was sung by a mezzo-soprano.  Not having read the Synopsis carefully before the show, I actually thought for a long time he was Marguerite, and got very confused when Marguerite first appeared.  This tradition of having a young man’s singing to be done by a woman continues to confuse me to no end.

The staging works well for the scenes called for in the opera.  The spiral staircase and walkway on either side of the stage provide a natural place for singers to linger and observe, and for the chorus to congregate.  Beyond that it does not make much sense.  When one hears of “nuclear bomb laboratory” and “Faust” one might think the bargain with the devil is to create this weapon of mass destruction.  If this is indeed the intention, the director and set designer fail spectacularly: there is amusement and puzzlement, but no horror.  If this is not the intention, they what the heck …  I really felt cheated when the “ascension” scene came along – Marguerite simply walked up a stair case, complete with landings at the turns.  The WQXR narrative made it so mesmerizing, but it was just someone in a haggard dress climbing up to the catwalk.  The few “magic tricks” (e.g., withering roses or how Marguerite transformed from being pregnant to holding a baby in her arms) were unnecessary.

The music is generally pleasant, which may not be the adjective you want associated with Faust.  This opera when it first came out was extremely popular.  Indeed what we saw was the 740th performance by the Met.  We also heard it in French, evidently versions in other languages exist.

For me, anyway, the comparison of this with Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust is unavoidable.  The latter was not composed for the opera but I thought the Met did a good job with it.  It is interesting to note that Gounod’s work premiered in 1859 while Berlioz wrote his in 1846.  I wonder if there was any rivalry between the two composers at that time; there was no reference of it in the Playbill.

I just reread the New York Times review.  The reviewer is very positive on the singers, while I am not.  For me, how good an opera is starts and ends with the musical performance, the rest is gravy.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Metropolitan Opera – Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. December 15, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle C220 ($37.50).

Story.  Marie, an abandoned infant, is adopted and raised by the soldiers of the 21st regiment.  She falls in love with the Tyrolean Tonio, who, though an enemy, saved her life.  Tonio looks for Marie but is captured instead.  His life is spared after Marie pleads for his life.  Their plan to get married is rejected by the soldiers as Marie must marry a soldier from the 21st regiment.  Tonio decides to join the regiment so they can get married.  Meanwhile, the Marquise of Berkenfield, who abandoned Marie out of shame because she was born out of wedlock, claims Marie to be her niece and brings her back to the Berkenfield Castle.  The Marquise also arranges Marie to marry Scipion.  Marie initially objects, but relents after she finds out that the Marquise is actually her mother.  The soldiers storm in but Marie remains obedient to her mother’s wishes; however, after Marie sings of her debt to the soldiers, the Marquise gives her permission to marry Tonio.

Conductor – Yves Abel; Marie – Nino Machaidze, Tonio – Lawrence Brownlee, Sulpice – Maurizio Muranro, Hortensius – James Courtney, The Marquise of Berkenfield – Ann Murray.

I must say at the outset I didn’t prepare for this opera at all.  All I know was that it is a comedic opera written by Donizetti.  Whether it was the lack of sleep the last few nights, or it was concert overload (five so far in December, and two more to go, for a total of eight), I just felt very tired at the beginning and had trouble staying awake after the rather pleasant overture.

Yet the show held for me several surprises …

My first surprise was Marie.  From where I was sitting, even with binoculars, I couldn’t get a good look at her, so I thought she was a middle-aged singer trying to pass herself off as a young lady.  Searching the internet during intermission corrected that misconception: she is from the Republic of Georgia, and is another of those who quickly rose to prominence a few years ago.  To have a Met debut at age 28 (as Gilda earlier this year) is certainly no small feat.  She could certainly sing, be it a soft passage or a high note.  Since she is supposed to be a tom-boy (being raised by a bunch of soldiers, after all), she tends to jump on people every now and then.  She is not small, and it was a bit worrisome when she jumped on the slightly built Tonio (sung by Brownlee).

We saw Brownlee as Rinaldo opposite Renee Fleming in Armida (April 2010).  He was quite good then, but I thought a bit on the nervous side which I attributed to being young and singing with a renowned soprano, and “predicted” that he would improve.  He certainly did very well tonight, and perhaps singing with a younger soprano helped.  His voice was a bit weak at times, though he had no trouble hitting the nine high Cs.

When the royally regaled Duchess of Krakenthorp came out at the beginning of Act 2, there was a huge applause from the audience.  I couldn’t understand why.  Then I said to Anne the Duchess looked a bit like Joan Sutherland; Anne reminded me that Sutherland is dead.  The Playbill solved the mystery: it was Kiri Te Kawana.  She had some dialog, but did no singing.  We heard her in Carnegie Hall a while back and wondered what she would be like at her prime.  [On Saturday I drove around town with the radio tuned to WQXR.  They were broadcasting Madama Butterfly, but during the intermission were interviewing Te Kawana, who shed some additional (but not much) light on her cameo appearance.  I thought she said there was a small singing part, but I certainly didn’t catch it.]

Yet another surprise was that the opera is in French.  I don’t speak French or Italian, but at least could tell the two languages apart.  Evidently French was the original, but there are versions in German, Italian, and English.  In my opinion most operas sound better in Italian, but with its many love songs, it works quite well in this case.  From this opera, I couldn’t tell if Donizetti was a Francophile or he was making fun of them.  A patriotic French song closed the opera, and a banner with a cartoon rooster (Chanticler) was lowered as a backdrop, which puzzles Anne and me greatly.

The Program Notes also mentioned that Berlioz was a music critic then and panned the opera as being too "sugary" given all the tunes in it.  I say "the more the merrier."

The script (or is it the director) calls for a fair amount of comedic actions.  Marie’s ponytails, the maids cleaning at the beginning of Act 2, and the tank that Tonio drove in to save Marie, are examples of this.  Many in the audience appreciated them, but I haven’t been turned into a great fan of the genre yet, and physical comedy doesn’t appeal to me.

Most of the arias were done well, with the appropriate amount of dramatic effect.  The trio (by Tonio, Marie, and Sulpice) calls for rapid notes and was a bit disappointing.

Today being a gridlock alert day, we decided to drive in early.  What was a 10-minute wait at Lincoln Tunnel when we got started turned into a much longer wait.  We had wanted to spend some time at the Museum of Biblical Art on Broadway but decided we wouldn’t have enough time.  So we took a stroll down to Columbus Circle and then to Carnegie Hall, having dinner at Lili’s 57 across the street.  We also waited for about 10 minutes inside the Time Warner Building for the “Light Show” which turned out to be a great disappointment.

The concert was not well attended.  Chao Ming went to the box office to buy one more ticket and got “upgraded” to Prime Orchestra (all the way from Family Circle).  We did take them back to their car parked in South River, so it was about 12:30 am when we got home.

Here is the link to the New York Times review.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Peter Schreier, Conductor. December 14, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 4 Left (Seat QQ11, $35.20).

Messiah (1741) by Handel (1685-1759).

Soloists: Ute Selbig, soprano; Nathalie Stutzmann, contralto, Steve Davislim, tenor, Peter Rose, Bass.
Westminster Symphonic Choir – Joe Miller, director.

Feeling very much in the holiday spirit, and because Goldstar had discounted tickets on sale, we decided during our Houston trip to purchase tickets for tonight’s concert.  Today wasn’t a gridlock alert day, but an accident in Lincoln Tunnel and a water main break in Weehawkin really caused Hudson crossing and mid-town traffic to snarl up.  While the path we took didn’t involve the reported 90-minute delays, the spillover traffic was so bad that it took us close to two hours to get to the parking garage.  After picking up tonight’s concert tickets and buying several opera tickets, we had just enough time for take-out at Ollie’s.

I don’t remember having heard any of the soloists before.  And Peter Schrier evidently was a tenor from his debut in 1959 to his retirement in 2005.  The choir comprises students at Westminster Choir College.  I must have heard them before since it collaborates with this orchestra quite frequently.

As familiar as the oratorio might be, I still find some new information about the composition that I didn’t know about.  First, while it was first performed in Dublin in April, 1742, it was written in London the year before.  During the first few decades of its existence, it was more an Easter tradition than today’s Christmas tradition.  There are many versions of this work, many of the revisions were put in by Handel to accommodate the specific needs of a performance.  I couldn’t quite get what the Program Notes say about tonight’s performance, but it seems several “less popular items” were taken out from the score.  I wonder which ones, and how long would the piece last if performed in its entirety.  Tonight’s concert was 2:40 hours with a 25-minute or so intermission.

The oratorio has three parts.  Part I relates to the prophecy of Christ’s coming and the circumstances of his birth; Part II to his life on earth; and Part III to the events surrounding the resurrection and the promise of redemption.

I was quite impressed after hearing the overture, the recitative and air by the tenor, and the first chorus by the choir.  The orchestra is small (6 first violins), the choir also relatively small at 70 or so members.  Nonetheless, the voices were clear and crisp, and the acoustics for this last row in the orchestra section was good.  The bass’s first appearance (a recitative) was also good.  Then the contralto came on, and that was a great disappointment.  I still remember the last time we heard this Chung Shu likened the bass as a singer with a rock in his mouth.  I am not that good with analogies, but the sound was strange it seemed to lodge in the singer’s throat unable to come out.

Unfortunately, the contralto didn’t improve as the evening progressed, and the crispness of the choir eventually began to make us wonder about the choir.  Anne pointed out the choir simply stressed the notes a bit too much (there is a musical term that for now escapes me.)  While this technique works wonders during the 16th note runs, it is not quite appropriate for the slower notes.  Since we are quibbling, the high notes (I think it gets to a G in this piece) also sounds a bit harsh at times.

The audience stood up for the Hallelujah Chorus (I was wondering if it would) at the conclusion of Part II.  Many people started to leave after that: some undoubtedly think it was a second intermission, but many never came back (or were not allowed to).  Which is too bad as the next Air (I know that my Redeemer liveth) was quite enjoyable.

For an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic, this must be a simple piece to perform.  And it started very well.  Surprising there were quite a few miscues later on.  Some of that may be due to working with a new conductor, some of that – I think – is simply due to lack of rehearsal time.

Perhaps it is the holiday spirit, and perhaps I feel forgiving towards a choir consisting of young men and women, I enjoyed the overall concert.

There will be altogether five performances.  I am quite impressed the concert is actually so popular, if tonight’s attendance was any indication.

New York Times has a review that is much kinder to the chorus than I am.  The reviewer made similar remarks about the contralto (impenetrable).  It also reminded me of how great the trumpets sounded.

Traffic was very light on our way home.  So I am glad we drove in.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Daniel Harding, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. December 9, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 3 Center (Seat GG106, $70.)

Flourish with Fireworks, Op. 22 (1988/93) by Oliver Knussen (b. 1952).
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 35 (1878) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).
Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-13) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Because of our recent travels, I didn’t pay much attention to this concert until I got to Avery Fisher Hall.  Actually I thought it was going to be a performance of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony!  I was pleasantly surprised when I found out about the details of tonight’s program – not that I would mind if indeed Mahler was going to be on the program.

The first piece was written by Knussen to celebrate Michael Tilson Thomas’s first performance as London Symphony’s principal conductor.  There is not a plot to the music, just a virtuoso piece to show off the conductor’s (and the orchestra’s) skills.  It serves that purpose quite well, as there is a cacophony of sounds that connoted a joyous celebration.  On the other hand, I have forgotten most of it as I am typing this blog two days later.  I wished I had read the Program Notes earlier and had known that the theme is based on the notes LSO-MTT (that would be A-E flat-G-E-B-B).  The sequence is atonal enough that I couldn’t get it in my head as the piece was being performed.   The Program Notes says the piece is three minutes long, I think it lasted close to four (not that it matters.)

I have heard Joshua Bell many times before, and while I by-an-large enjoyed his playing, I often found reason to quibble with his performances; sometimes I complained about his intonation, sometimes I complained about the sound of his Strad.  Tonight wasn’t one of those nights.  While Bell would (or should) be the first one to say it wasn’t a perfect performance, it came close.  And I may have finally found a seat in Avery Fisher that is perfect!  At least that’s how I felt after the first movement (Allegro moderato – Moderato assai).  The movement is among the best balanced live performance of a concerto I have ever heard, with the violin and the orchestra both coming across clearly.  An interesting thing about the concerto that I didn’t know: the premiere soloist Adolf Brodsky actually worked on it for more than two years before the first performance, and Leopold Auer – the original soloist Tchaikovsky had in mind – after first pronouncing it unplayable eventually became a believer.

This concerto is always a safe choice if you can pull it off technically.  Kind of like Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony choosing Mahler No. 5.   The demands on the artists are great, the effect ismesmerizing, and the melodies are captivating.  The audience broke out in applause after the first movement, which doesn’t happen that often.

Perhaps unfortunately for the performers, the first movement is a hard act to follow.  Indeed the second and third movements (Canzonetta - Andante; Finale – Allegro vivacissimo) don’t elicit nearly the same sense of awe.  There were balance problems here and there, and the violin was overwhelmed at times.  If these comprised the entire concerto, it would not have been as exciting an overall experience.  I do have a bit of quibble with the cadenza, which is extremely difficult: it dragged a bit.

I think I was a sophomore in college when I first heard the introductory bassoon theme to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.  It hit home how an atonal line that is close to unsingable can be so catchy.   I am quite sure I have heard the suite several times, although most of it still sounded new.  But I am certain I have never seen it staged as a ballet (or was even aware of a ballet performance); I wonder why, the story line is not nearly as controversial or sensational as when the ballet was first staged in Paris where it caused a near-riot.

In any case, I enjoyed the performance and had fun trying to match up the music with the different scenes described in the Program Notes.  For completeness they are as follows.  Part One: The Adoration of the Earth: Introduction; Augurs of Spring (Dance of the Adolescent Girls); Mock Abduction; Spring Rounds; Ritual of Rival Tribes; Procession of the Sage; The Adoration of the Earth (the Sage); Dance of the Earth.  Part Two: The Sacrifice: Introduction; Mystical Cycle of the Young Girls; Glorification of the Chosen One; Evocation of the Ancestors; Ritual Action of the Ancestors; Sacrificial Dance (the Chosen One).  The Program Notes provides further help with a description of the choreography.  To me these constitute a plot, despite the statement “the piece has no plot.”

This is the second time we heard Harding conduct.  His movements are quite exaggerated, but he manages a good sound.

Today was a gridlock alert day, so we took the train in.  Everything worked well, we had a few minutes to spare when we got to Penn Station for our return trip.

The New York Times review is a bit on the lazy side, in my opinion.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Houston Symphony - Christoph Eschenbach, conductor. December 6, 2011.

Jones Hall, Houston, Orchestra (Seat V118, $65.50)

Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911).

Anne had a class during the evening, so I went to the concert by myself.  I heard Eschenbach a couple of years back, with the New York Philharmonic, but don't remember much of that event.  The tickets are "reasonably" priced; I got one in the middle price range.

Eschenbach was the director of the Houston Symphony for over ten years (1988-1999), and from the enthusiastic applause of the audience when he first stepped onto the stage, appears to be very popular with tonight's crowd.

For this evidently highly anticipated event, picking Mahler's Fifth was a safe and somewhat timid choice.  The symphony is always a crowd pleaser, as long as the brass section holds up.  And tonight the brass section acquitted itself quite well.

Jones Hall, like Brown Theater, is a large building.  It has a lot of common areas so people don't bump into each other during intermission.  But there was no intermission tonight, the 70-minute work was performed without one.  The orchestra is pretty large, I counted 15 first violins and 8 basses, for instance.  The acoustics of the auditorium is not as crisp as it could be, but quite acceptable.  The sometimes muffled sound from the orchestra could be a result of that, or the orchestra was sloppy at times.  The seats are comfortable, with lots of leg room.  It even has a bit of recline to it.

Inside Jones Hall, home of Houston Symphony.

In general it was a very enjoyable concert.  The last time I heard Mahler's Fifth was with Dudamel conducting the New York Philharmonic, which I raved about.  I don't think this is quite at that level, but still very good.

Even though I played this piece with the Cornell Symphony during my college days, I am still amazed that there are parts I didn't fully appreciate until the current hearing.  I especially appreciated how the horns led in the last movement.  Eschenbach's interpretation was a bit on the mechanical side.  I would like to have more graceful phrasing at many of the instances that a distinct downbeat was heard.  I went back to my blog about the last concert of his that I heard, the same remarks (energetic, seems to concentrate on one part at a time) also apply here.  At that concert I heard Beethoven's First Piano Concerto (Lang Lang as soloist) and Bruckner's Ninth Symphony.

The applause at the end was thunderous, and Eschenbach made four (I think) curtain calls.  I wonder if the Houston Symphony gets this kind of response every time.

When I wrote about the Houston Ballet a couple of days ago, I was musing about how the classical music scene in Houston compares to that of Hong Kong, my home town.  I was quite sure Hong Kong would not be able to stage a ballet to the level of the Houston Ballet, and I am also quite sure Hong Kong's orchestra - although quite good - isn't quite at the level of the Houston Symphony.  So, sad to say, it is settled.

I thought I lucked out again when I found an off-street parking space.  When I came out of the concert I found a parking ticket stuck to my windshield, a $70 fine.  The offense is "tow away zone, bagged meter."  The closest signs at the street corner say nothing of the sort.  I have yet to decide whether I want to appeal it or not ... A blemish on an otherwise nice evening, even though I was by myself.  On the other hand, my evening would really have been ruined if they had towed away my car.  [Note added 12/13/2011.  So I did access the Houston Parking website and appealed to the City's sense of fairness.  I just heard back from them that I am not liable.  As my son said, "huzzah."]

Metropolitan Opera – Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (M. K. Ghandhi in South Africa). December 1, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle E221 ($37.50).

Story.  This opera is mostly based on some of the events that happened to Gandhi while he was in South Africa (1893 – 1914).  The vocal text is by Constance DeJong and is adapted from the Bhagavad Gita, a Sanskrit text from a religious epic (Mahabharata) dating mostly probably from 5th century BC to 4th century AD, and is a philosophical conversation between the warrior prince Arjuna and the divine Lord Krishna on the eve of a great battle.  Act 1 Scene 1 describes some of this dialog.  The rest of the opera relates how Indians living in South Africa struggle for their civil rights.  The Sanskrit word satyagraha means “true force” which was adopted by Gandhi and others as their ideal.  Act 1 Scene 2 (Tolstoy Farm, 1910) discusses how the satyagraphis pledge to resist the European’s racial discrimination, and they set up the Tolstoy Farm to draw people to the satyagraha ideal of “fight on the behalf of Truth consisting chiefly in self-purification and self-reliance.”  Act 1 Scene 3 (The Vow, 1906) predates Scene 2, it describes the adoption of Black Act (registration and fingerprinting of all Indians) and as a consequence people attending a rally organized by the satyagrahas pledge to honor a resolution to resist.  Act 2 Scene 1 (Confrontation and Rescue, 1896) describes how Gandhi is attacked after his speeches and meetings in India are published; he is saved by his European friend Mrs. Alexander.  Scene 2 is about the publication Indian Opinion (1906) which grows in circulation to 20,000 in South Africa.  Scene 3 (Protest, 1908) describes how Indians burn their registration cards to protest the arrest of those who disobey deportation orders.  Act 3 (New Castle March 1913) describes how the government tries to impose new restrictions on Indians and how they try to organize a march to the Tolstoy Farm to force the government’s hand.

Conductor – Dante Anzolini; M. K. Gandhi – Richard Croft; Prince Arjuna – Bradley Garvin; Lord Krishna – Richard Bernstein; Miss Schlesson, Gandhi’s secretary – Rachelle Durkin; Kasturbai, Gandhi’s wife – Maria Zifchak; Mr. Kallenbach, European co-worker – Kim Josephson; Pari Rustomji, Indian co-worker – Alfred Walker; Mrs. Alexander, European friend – Mary Phillips.

I heard Philip Glass’s music once, his violin concerto, having avoided his music given his reputation of being an ultra-modern composer (turns out he belongs to the Minimalist school.)  I found the piece quite easy to listen to, so I was ready to tackle tonight’s 3 hour 45 minute (including two intermissions) opera.  Then I read the one-sheet insert in the Playbill, which is translated text of the Sanskrit.  When I came to the sentence “My very being is oppressed with compassion’s harmful taint,” I began to have my doubts.  Then I read the “In Focus” section of the Playbill and its description of Glass’s music being “entirely accessible” made me ready again.  So I was quite curious how it would all turn out before the first note was played.  I don’t quite know how to describe the opera, I must say.  And it is quite unlikely I will go see it again.

The opera is part of the “Grand Spectacles” series.  I am not sure the sets live up to that billing.  They are reasonably large and indeed some acrobatics and magic are involved, but not quite on the scale of being “grand.”  There are some clever ideas, some (such as the newspaper publication process) make sense, and some are nice visuals (such as the tapes being brought across the stage) but not quite obvious.

The choice of events included is also a bit puzzling.  Most of them make sense, but they all seem to involve protests of some sort.  I am sure Gandhi did much more than just that.  Glass mentions there are many to choose from, so it is unfortunate that the choices reflect (undoubtedly) only a small part of Gandhi’s actions and accomplishments during his years in South Africa.  Act 3 has as background a figure representing Martin Luther King Jr. on a podium.  Which brings up an issue and a question: issue – King and Gandhi are not contemporaries; question – blacks were oppressed, perhaps even more so, than Indians at that time, why was there no mention of this in the opera?  Even more puzzling was Act 1 Scene 1 where we have mythical figures talking to each other.  Finally, the story ends as describes above, with absolutely no resolution.  I guess I have made my feelings clear on what I think of the story.

Having heard Glass’s music once, the opera’s musical elements didn’t surprise me.  The “minimalist” aspect of it makes it not challenging to grasp.  The flip side, however, is that the many repetitions Glass thinks are necessary to move the story forward gets tiresome, very quickly.  For me it got so tiresome that I nodded off several times.  The singing was generally fine, given the vocal parts were not particularly difficult.  The most challenging part probably is to keep the meter correctly, from what I can tell, there is a great tendency to change from one meter to another rapidly.  Rachelle Durkin (as Gandhi’s secretary) is also a graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist program.  While she had no trouble reaching the high notes required of her part, her voice was a bit harsh.

For the reader who gets to go to this Opera, a couple of suggetsions.  First read the synopsis to get some idea of what is going on, because despite the reassurances in Playbill, the actions are not self-explanatory.  For the most part the words projected on the sets can be ignored.  But if desired they can be read up in advance to get some idea of the philosophical statements being made.  The opera may make a bit more “real time” sense if these steps are done ahead of time.  Otherwise one has to resign to try to enjoy the music and action as they unfold.

On thought I had after seeing Nabucco was that the story could be developed a bit fuller.  My view of Satyagrapha is quite the opposite.  Despite Glass’s claim that his music tends to develop slowly, I felt many parts of the opera were repeated way too often.  Case in point, the last “aria” by Gandhi consisted of a motif of three identical upward scales starting with the mediant; and this trio of scales got repeated so many times that I lost count.  And as far as I could tell, the words are the same.  When Gandhi’s voice began to break into a falsetto, I thought all the singing finally got to him.  Instead the curtain came down, so now I am confused whether the falsetto was planned.

On the way home, I listened to Glass’s violin concerto for a second time.  It was exactly as I envisioned it (I didn’t remember much of it, though), except the demands on the violinist are quite substantial.  The first two movements were quite all right, and the last movement a bit repetitive but at about 15 minutes relatively painless.  One conclusion that can be drawn from this?  30 minutes of Glass is bearable, 3 hours is a bit much.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Houston Ballet - Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. December 4, 2011.

Brown Theater at Wortham Theater Center, Houston, TX - Grand Tier Section D (Seat E2, $51).

Conductor - Craig Kier.  Sugar Plum Fairy - Amy Fote, Nutcracker Prince - Jun Shuang Huang, Snow Queen - Katherine Precourt, Clara - Allison Miller, Dr. Drosselmeyer - Christopher Coomer.

Anne and I came down to Houston to spend a few days, so far the trip has been somewhat of a disappointment.  We also looked into the classical music scene here and find it to be slim pickings.  Only performances that are on during our stay is a Houston Symphony concert, for which I bought a ticket yesterday, and several performances of the Nutcracker by Houston Ballet.

Today we got back into town a bit before six and decided to see if we could get tickets for the evening Nutcracker show.  We did.  Turns out there are very few restaurants in the area, and those we saw were a bit too formal for our taste, so we stopped by a cinema cafe and ordered a sandwich.

The venue - Wortham Center - certainly is impressive.  I was somewhat surprised to find out the Brown Theater had a capacity of only 2150 or so, it felt as cavernous as the Met.  The building's architecture is on the grand side inside and out, commensurate with "everything is bigger in Texas."

Inside the Houston Wortham Theater.

I have seen this ballet a couple of times before and wasn't that impressed.  Thus my expectations for the evening wasn't that high.  I ended up enjoying it immensely.

First, the sets.  They were quite ornate and elaborate.  Even though the stage is huge, there are sets that filled up the space nicely, and there are enough people flying around to make things interesting.  If I had not seen the Christmas tree transformation before I may be quite impressed with the growth scene.

The dancers put out an energetic and enjoyable performance.  I can quibble a bit that the slow movements are not as poetic as they could be, but there is not a lot of poetry inherent in the Nutcracker.  The athleticism of the male dancers is quite impressive.  The group dances all painted very pleasant pictures.

The choreography felt very fresh to me.  Perhaps they do the same thing year after year, but for me it is interesting and at times genuinely funny.

I usually don't pay a lot of attention to the costumes but find them quite enjoyable (if that is the right term).  The colors are bright and Anne thought border on the gaudy side.  My reaction was "well this is Houston.".

On our drive from Galveston to Houston I remarked to Anne that the classical scene in Houston is similar to that of Hong Kong, thus insulting both cities at the same time.  I have to revise that statement and say I have not ever seen anything so good in Hong Kong.  I will have a possibly firmer opinion after seeing the Houston Symphony on Tuesday.

The evening was "perfect" in yet another way: we parked right in front of the theater.  Our small rental car (Nissan Cube) was just the right size for this tiny space. Since it was Sunday, we didn't have to pay a dime.

Today (Thursday 12/8) I found this review of the Ballet on line.  The reviewer is absolutely in love with this production.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Bernard Haitink, conductor. November 19, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat BB104, $70.)

Symphony No. 96 in D major, Hob. I:96 (1791) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881-83, rev. 1885; ed. L. Nowak, 1954) by Bruckner (1824-96).

The last time Haitink’s name came up was last week:  he was listed as Boston Symphony’s Conductor Emeritus.  Today was the first time we saw him in a live performance.  Somehow I knew he was about 80 years old, so I was expecting someone in the “mode” of a Maazel, Masur, Previn, or (Colin) Davis. Let me say at the outset that proved to be wrong, for a while I thought I had to be mistaken because he conducted like a much younger person (well, someone in his 60s, maybe).  I checked my iPhone during intermission, indeed he was born in March, 1929, making him 82 years old.  The other surprise is he was greeted like a rock star (by New York Philharmonic audience standards, that is).  In addition to enthusiastic applause, there was quite a bit of hollering.  And some of that came when he first stepped onto the stage, before the first note was played.  I have been going to New York Philharmonic concerts for quite a few years, and had never heard him until today; I can’t imagine the rest of the audience has (have?) heard him much either.  While the accolades turned out to be well deserved, it was still a bit puzzling.

Haydn of course was a prolific composer, in part due to his appointment at the court of Prince Esterhazy, which required him to produce new music in great frequency.  When the court finally cut back on its arts programs, Haydn had the chance to visit London, once in the years 1791 and 1792, once in 1794 and 1795.  During each of the stays Haydn produced six symphonies which are collectively called his London Symphonies (No. 93-98, 99-104; evidently he didn’t write any symphonies between the two visits.)  This symphony also carries the designation “Miracle,” supposedly because a chandelier fell down during its first performance and no one was hurt.  Historians seem to agree a chandelier did fall during a Haydn symphony, but it wasn’t this one.  I suppose people just associate the work with “miracle,” just like the 12 symphonies probably have limited “London” sound to them.

This symphony’s four movements are (i) Adagio – Allegro; (ii) Andante; (iii) Menuetto and Trio – Allegretto; and (iv) Finale: Vivace (assai); they add up to about 20 minutes.  Compared to other Haydn symphonies I heard, this one is relatively complex, with solo lines by various instruments including the oboe, bassoon, and duets by violins.  It was an excellent performance, crispy, loud and heavy, and soft and light where it should be.  And the dynamic range was just excellent.  The last movement was especially enjoyable.  While it is technically relatively simple, I was still impressed with how precise the orchestra sounded.

On paper the Bruckner symphony would provide great contrast to the Haydn one.  It is much longer at 65 or so minutes, it was written about 100 years later, and Bruckner’s music tends to be long and (my words) more narrative.  While all that is true, the difference is not as great as one would expect.

The orchestration is on the traditional side with a few notable exceptions.  Four Wagner tubas (two tenors, two basses) were used; these are devised by Wagner for his Ring Cycle operas and not used much outside of those operas.  There was also a large brass contingent: four French horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and one tuba.  I actually counted 5 French horns and 4 trumpets, putting the total number of brasses at 17.  They never sounded too loud, though, indicating a good conductor can find the right balance among the different orchestra sections.  I do wonder whether they got the extra brass players (especially Wagner tubas) from the Met.  Come to think of it, this is one of the better performances by the brass section, despite the occasional sloppy note.  The strings were out in full force also: I counted 16 first violins, 13 second violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, and 8 basses.  In terms of percussion, there is of course the timpani.  In the edition used for this performance, there is also the cymbal and the triangle.  There is a lot of discussion in the Program Notes about how Bruckner got talked into putting these two instruments in a revision to the original, but eventually declared them invalid (or did he?).  They only appeared once (I think the cymbal clanged only once) towards the end of the second movement.  Since the notes are played at the same time, you actually have two percussionists sitting through a 65 minute symphony feverishly hoping they got the timing right; or were they just listening to their iPods?

I do think “narrative” is a good way to describe Bruckner’s symphonies (as opposed to Mahler’s wanderings).  While the development of a movement may not be traditional, you always feel the composer is trying to lead you somewhere, and willingly go along.  There is a lot of structure to his music that is readily discernable.  For example, the first movement (Allegro moderato, about 20 minutes) was started by cellos playing a melody, when that melody reappears after 20 minutes, you know the movement is about to end.  Interestingly, the movement didn’t end on a loud chord, in a way it just stopped.  The second movement (Adagio: Very solemn and very slow – Moderato, about 25 minutes) is called the “Wagner tribute” as Bruckner had imagined Wagner (whom he called the Master) was about to die – which happened about a month afterwards.  The use of horns and the Wagner tubas make it sound quite Wagnerian, at times evoking the Valhalla motif from the Ring Cycle.

For reasons unclear to us, the tuba moved from the middle of the brass section to the end between the second and the third movement.  It may or may not have something to do with the Wagner tubas being quiet during the third movement; but the tuba didn’t move back for the fourth movement where the Wagner tubas were used again.  And it was an obvious move: the tuba is a huge (and shiny) instrument.  With this movement (Scherzo: Very fast – Trio: A little slower; 12 minutes) we are back to the sunny disposition of the symphony.  The contrast between the scherzo and the trio is more pronounced than the tempo marking would indicate, though.  The relatively short fourth movement (Finale: Moving, yet not fast; 8 minutes) concluded the piece.

The applause at the end was enthusiastic, and Haitink came out multiple times to acknowledge the audience.

The uncharacteristically short New York Times review was very positive.  It also states the opening Bruckner theme was played by violas and cellos.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Boston Symphony Orchestra – Myung-Whun Chung, Conductor; Garrick Ohlsson, Pianist. November 12, 2011.

Symphony Hall, Boston, First Balcony (Seat E37, $51.25)

Overture to the Opera “Der Freischutz” (1820) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826).
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 39 (1962) by Samuel Barber (1910-1981).
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathetique” (1893) by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

We are in the Boston area for several days to babysit our son’s dog while he and Jess go on a short trip to Madrid.  We looked around and found there were tickets available for this concert (both Friday and Saturday.)  They were discounting Friday’s tickets, but we were a bit too tired (from driving around the area) to make the 7 pm start time.  The $45 seats (plus $6.25 fee) we ended up getting actually had a good view of the stage.  I wish we had brought our binoculars, though.

We didn’t want to pay for parking, last time we went to Symphony Hall we parked a couple of blocks away.  This time we were a good 15-minute away, but it was a nice fall evening.

If you look at the BSO roster, for conductor they list only two: Bernard Haitnik as Conductor Emeritus, and Seiji Ozawa as Music Director Laureate.  James Levine actually resigned at the beginning of the season due to health reasons.  I still find it interesting that there is no mention of him that I could find in the rather thick program, perhaps the parting wasn’t cordial?

Weber’s opera relays the story of a “free shooter” (who shoots bullets) who sold his soul.  The overture contains themes from the opera, and the horns supposedly evoke images of a forest (don’t they always?).  Still, the 10 minute piece is a delight, and started the concert propitiously.  The Program Notes contains a detailed description of how the piece is structured, and it is easy to follow along.

Barber is an all-American composer, born in Pennsylvania and died in New York.  This concerto was written for John Browning, who would perform it nearly 150 times by 1969.  It also won Barber a second Pulitzer Prize (which may or may not mean a lot; Cornell Symphony’s conductor Karel Husa also won a Pulitzer Prize for a composition that is not played much – if at all – nowadays.)

There is no doubt that this is a virtuoso piece; indeed even Vladimir Horowitz suggested simplifying a passage to make it more playable at the proper tempo.  Both the pianist and the orchestra seemed to enjoy their collaboration; and Ohlsson appeared very much in his element.  Nonetheless, sometimes the piano was simply overwhelmed: from where I sat I could see the pianist’s hands and fingers moving frantically, but couldn’t even make out the piano’s sound with my hands cupped behind my ears.  The piece sounded great when only a limited number of orchestra members played, and there were quite a few passages of that nature.  The composer himself provided a description of the music for the premiere.  The three movements are (i) Allegro appassionato, Canzone, and Allegro molto.  The second movement is a rework of a prior work for flute and piano, and highlights the flute.  The 5/8 time of the last movement retains its firm grip even as the music goes through its many gyrations.

The “Pathetique” Symphony is very much associated with the composer’s death nine days after conducting its premiere.  The second performance was part of the memorial concert for him. Various stories have Tchaikovsky suffering from severe depression because he was afraid his homosexuality would be exposed, and that he drank an untreated glass of water on purpose to contract cholera.  The Symphony has four movements: (i) Adagio – Allegro non troppo; (ii) Allegro con grazia; (iii) Allegro molto vivace; and (iv) Adagio lamentoso – Andante.

Even though many of the tunes in the Symphony sounded familiar, I have heard the whole piece only a limited number of times.  I was surprised how some themes (e.g., one in the second movement) were used over and over, without sounding too repetitious.  The third movement has a very energetic tempo, unusual for a third movement of a Symphony; and the audience applauded afterwards.  Perhaps a bit of a faux pas, but also an indication of how appreciate the audience was.  Indeed it was an enjoyable performance.  In any case, the triumphal sounding third movement wasn’t enough to overcome the overall pathos of the piece, punctuated by the fourth movement, which ended on pizzicato on strings against a pedal point dotted note in the bass.  I wonder which Symphony is sadder, this one, or the one by Mahler (“Tragic,” also his sixth).

Myung-Whun Chung is the music director of the Seoul Philharmonic, although he has spent a lot of time in the USA (New York and Los Angeles) during his early career.  He conducted the program without music, and evoked a great sound from the orchestra (except for the balance issue during the piano concerto.)  I have heard the BSO several times (including at Tanglewood), and thought one of their hallmarks is how precise they are.  By that measure they are a bit sloppy today, perhaps inevitable without a permanent music director?  But they certainly belong in the upper echelons of ensembles, at least of the ones I have heard.

The Boston Globe’s Review of the program is not all that positive.  Neither is the lengthy review by this organization called “Arts Fuse.”  There may be a bit of Levine-withdrawal at work here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Celebrity Constellation Production Team “Land of Make Believe”. October 28, 2011.

On board Celebrity Constellation.  Celebrity Theater: Seat Balcony Left.

This is a one-hour Broadway-style mini-show with a rather old story line: a couple wants to get married, the groom’s mother doesn’t like the bride-to-be and schemes to break up the relationship, but to no avail.  At the end all is well that ends well.

Tried and true the story line might be, in the hands of a good producer, the right elements could be brought to bear to make the show enjoyable.  Alas, this wasn’t the case here.

The show does draw storylines from different shows (including Broadway’s), these include Wicked, Bye Bye Birdie, and others.  (I am not that familiar with Broadway shows, and I am typing this several days later.)

Again, you have to admire the cast’s ability to take on the workload, the same people from last night’s show were playing different roles in this production; there was even this dream sequence performed by the acrobats, who also double as actors in the cast.

[Note: We saw another evening program, this time a magic show, after this one.  Those were the three we watched during this 12-night cruise.]

Celebrity Constellation Production Team “Celebrate the World”. October 27, 2011.

On board Celebrity Constellation.  Celebrity Theater: Seat Balcony Left.

We are on a cruise of the Mediterranean with a group from church.  Many wanted to see this show and asked us to come along.  We are not fans of these variety-type shows, but decided at the last minute to go.  Anne slept through most of the one-hour show.

The show basically comprised of songs and dance from various countries, including Thailand, China, Ireland, France, and Russia.  I think they were all performed by a troupe of 15 or so artists, so one amazing thing is how quickly they could change their costumes.

Several pieces that I enjoyed were: Don’t Cry for me Argentina from the Musical, Acrobats from China, and the Irish “tap dance” where people made noise with their shoes without moving (much) their upper bodies.  Someone also sang “Nessum Dorma” but not quite up to operatic standards, as part of the Italy segment.

When the Cruise Director came out to greet the group, we thought it was a good time to leave.

One may ask, legitimately, whether shows of this kind are worth blogging about.  I decided to at least jot down my thoughts so I can recall how I feel about it, in case I wonder sometime in the future.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Nabucco. October 15, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony Seat A7 ($109.50).

Story.  Nabucco is attacking the Israelites but his daughter Fenena is captured and held hostage by the Israelites.  Fenena is in love with Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem.  Abigaille, Fenena’s half sister, gains entry into Jerusalem, but her profession of love for Ismaele isn’t reciprocated.  When Nabucco confronts the Israelite Priest Zaccarias, Ismaele disarms the priest and releases Fenena.  Fenena is then appointed regent by Nabucco.  Abigaille finds out she is actually the daughter of a slave and vows to gain control of the kingdom.  The High Priest of Baal brings news that Fenena has converted to the God of Israel and freed all the captives.  He hatches a plan with Abigaille to usurp the throne by claiming Nabucco has died in battle.  As she is about to be crowned, Nabucco appears and declares himself to be god.  For his blasphemy he is struck by a thunderbolt, and Abigaille becomes queen.  Abigaille wants to have Fenena and the Israelites killed.  When the insane Nabucco wanders in, she tricks him into signing the death warrant, and also tears up the document indicating her ancestry.  Nabucco watches as Fenena and the Israelites are being led to execution; his sanity is restored after he prays for forgiveness.  He rushes in before the executions take place.  The story ends when Abigaille asks for forgiveness and commits suicide and Nabucco freeing the Israelites.

Conductor – Paolo Carignani; Zaccaria – Carlo Colombara, Ismaele – Yonghoon Lee, Fenena – Renee Tatum, Abigaille – Maria Guleghina, Nabucco – Zeljko Lucic, High Priest of Baal – David Crawford.

The plot description above is one of the longest I have written, even though the story is quite simple.  Somehow the story develops in such a way that I can’t simply summarize it in a short paragraph.  Perhaps it is this Mark Twain effect of “not having time to write a short summary” (paraphrasing), orperhaps it is just a convoluted story.

The opera is inspired by the Biblical account of Nebuchadnezzar.  The Program Notes claims there is no conflict with what is in the Bible, but Verdi (or rather his lyricist Temistocle Solear) has taken quite a bit of liberty with other characters.  I know the Nebuchadnezzar described in Daniel, and none of the other characters exist, except for the generic High Priest of Baal.  The Israel Priest Zacchariah didn’t have any overlap with Nebuchadnezzar, so I assume the Zaccaria in the opera does not refer to him.

Anne and I saw this opera in Los Angeles quite a few years ago (around 2003).  At that time we were flying back and forth between the two coasts, and I distinctly remember her sleeping through most of the performance.  She remembers liking the costumes (longer dresses) and the Hebrew slave song.  I remember a bit of the staging (a huge staircase) and also the slave song.  The slave song is of course one of Verdi’s most famous works, and was performed at his funeral, conducted by Toscanini.  I wish I had kept a blog then (well, that would be anachronistic) so I have some idea how I enjoyed that performance.

While the opera is titled “Nabucco,” its main character is actually Abigaille.  This is true in terms of the amount of singing she does, and in terms of hers being the most complex character.  However, the character is presented in such a way that she doesn’t provoke a strong feeling from the audience.  I don’t think the audience hates her (ala Scarpia in Tosca), nor do they feel great joy or great sadness when she dies.  None of the other characters are developed fully, and the audience consequently isn’t greatly vested in how their fates turn out.  Supposedly Verdi was discouraged after his first attempts at opera, and started composing again after he saw the libretto of Nabucco.  I can’t imagine why.

On the positive side, the chorus plays a more important role in the opera.  Even here the role can be developed a bit more fully.  This is an opera that probably would benefit from being an hour longer to allow more time for character development; or a lot of the repetitions can be cut out.

A few words on the sets.  They are quite massive, tall, wide, and occupy the entire stage.  By rotating the platform, quick scene changes can be effected.  There are also many staircases.  Some of the design is puzzling, but they generally serve the purpose.  As far as I could tell, the Palace looks like the Temple of Baal, with a grotesque figure towering over the throne; and the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” looks suspiciously like the Palace.  I was all ready to see how this wonder of the world might look like, at least in someone’s imagination.  They do need the huge sets to accommodate all the singers.  A couple of gallows were in the set depicting the impending execution; I am quite sure that wasn’t the means by which the condemned died then.

Renee Tatum is in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and she started beautifully.  Her voice was strong, although not as strong as some of her colleagues (more on that later).  However, at the end she must have felt nervous as her voice became a bit unsteady.  Tamara Mumford, who sang the role of Smeaton in Anna Bolena, certainly did a better job.  Coincidently, she also performed as a Rheinmaiden in the Ring Cycle (also as Flosshilde, with SF Opera).

The young Korean Lee sang a strong role as Ismaele.  Lucic, from Serbia & Montenegro, was excellent as Nabucco, he was particularly good with the low notes.

The Met revived Nabucco in 2001, and Guleghina sang the role of Abigaille then.  Certainly her experience showed during tonight’s performance.  However, most of the time her volume is set on high.  It actually started and remained loud for so long that I wondered if she had any other volume setting.  Turns out she does, and it is really regrettable that she doesn’t do that more often.  Ten years as Abigaille, on and off I suppose, haven’t improved her acting skills that much.

I did a little counting, I have seen at least 10 of Verdi’s operas.  Several of them more than once.

Anne went to Flushing early afternoon, drove the car into Manhattan, and found off-street parking that cost us $2.50 only.  I took the train in.  We had dinner at China Fun.  The opera ended at about 11:20 pm and the ride home was quite smooth.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor; Rober Langevin – flute, Nancy Allen – Harp. October 14, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat V105, $70.)

Symphony No. 38 in D major, Prague, K.504 (1786) by Mozart (1756-91).
Concerto in C major for Flute and Harp, K.299/297c (1778) by Mozart.
Jeux: Poeme danse (1912-13) by Debussy (1862-1918).
Iberia, from Images for Orchestra (1905-08) by Debussy.

After a two-year hiatus since his retirement from New York Philharmonic, Maazel came back to conduct the orchestra.  His bio in the Program Notes says he will be leading the Munich Symphony starting next season, good for him.

Our concert starts at 2 pm, a rather unusual time.  It would mean coming back to NJ during the start of the commuting rush hour, so we decided to take the train in.  Everything worked reasonably smoothly, we caught the 11:30 am train up, and got back at around 5:30 pm.

The first part of the program consisted of two 30-minute works by Mozart.  The Symphony was composed when Mozart was in Vienna, and premiered in Prague, where it was well received.  Apparently that’s enough reason to call the Symphony by that name.  This symphony is not the most familiar of Mozart’s symphonies, although we did listen to it at last year’s Mostly Mozart Festival.  With the exception of the second movement which was a bit mechanical (and a bit long), it was a delight.  The orchestra was not as precise as I expected it to be, but this minor flaw was easily overlooked in the overall performance.  The Symphony is comprised of three movements: Adagio – Allegro; Andante; and Finale: Presto.

The Concerto appears to be standard repertoire for a flute and harp dual concerto, if there is such a thing.  It was last performed by the same artists (conductor, orchestra, and soloists) in 2007.  The music is nice, but I have a bit of problem with the overall balance.  Considering the sizes of the instruments, there is no reason why the flute should sound so much louder than the harp, but most of the time it did.  The other balance issue is between the soloists and the orchestra.  Supposedly orchestras of those days were small, and the Program Notes mentions the Prague Symphony premiered with an orchestra of about 20 people.  The music score specifies 11 woodwind and percussion instruments, that would leave about 9 string players: 2 in each section plus one bass, perhaps.  Even with a reduced orchestra, I counted about 6 first violins.  And today’s violin is probably much brighter sounding than violins of Mozart’s day (just go to any concert with period instruments to find out).  If that doesn’t mess up Mozart’s intent, I don’t know what would.

There were some technically challenging episodes (at least to a non-player), including the cadenzas, that were played well.  The movements of the Concerto are Allegro; Andantino; and Rondeau: Allegro.  The cadenzas were written by Karly Hermann Pillney.

The two Debussy pieces were unfamiliar to me, and each had (somewhat) a story-line associated with it.  Jeux was envisioned by dancer Vaslav Nijinsky as ballet music where the eventual scenario had one man and two women playing in a park, kissing, and then disappearing after a tennis ball is thrown at them.  How that story can become a ballet escapes me, what is more intriguing was that the original line had three men frolicking in the park interrupted by a plane crash.  While it was difficult to imagine the story unfold as the music is played, that there is such a storyline helped immensely in the appreciation of the music, which was whimsical at times.

Debussy never visited Spain for any length of time, having crossed the border for a few hours once, but managed to write Iberia in a convincing Spanish manner, without using any actual folk melodies.  He supposedly was a bit conflicted as to whether there is a story associated with the music, saying on one hand “it is useless to ask me for anecdotes about this work,” but on the other describing the transition from the second to the third movement as “things waking up … a man selling watermelons and urchins whistling.”  Indeed one can easily envision the scenes associated with the three movements: (i) By the Highways and By-ways; (ii) Parfumes of the Night; and (iii) Morning of a Festival Day.

The full orchestra was used for the Debussy pieces, and the effect was great.

One cannot help but wonder if Gilbert is an improvement over Maazel.  Certainly Maazel held his own with today’s concert, and I suspect he will be equally commanding with a complex symphonic work.  At 81 he may need to conserve his energy a bit, but today’s concert was about 100 minutes in length, on the long side.

Another observation.  This Orchestra is simply a well-oiled machine, you can throw anything at it and it will spit it out readily.  Contrast that with the Orpheus where complex pieces leave you sitting on the edge of your seat.

On 10/18/2011, I found this review from the New York Times.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Gil Shaham, violin. October 13, 2011.

Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Section Parquet Right (Row Y, Seat 14, $25).

Fair Melusina Overture, Op. 32 (1833) by Mendelssohn (1809-1849).
Memorium (2011) by Cynthia Wong (b. 1982).
Symphony No. 73 in D Major, Hob. I:73 “The Hunt” (1782) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (1878) by Brahms (1833-1897).

Anne couldn’t go to this concert, so I took the train by myself.  I got to the Concert Hall at about 7:45 pm and didn’t have time to sell the ticket; there were quite a few sellers, anyway.  The concert was well-attended, though.

Tonight’s performance was a bit of a mixed bag.  The piece by Mendelssohn is quite short at about 10 minutes.  It describes the story of Melusina, a beautiful girl cursed to turn into a mermaid one day a week.  Her husband, despite her warning, looked at her one fateful day, and she disappeared, leaving behind her sound of wailing.  The music paralleled this story line well enough.  And the beginning of the performance showed a lot of promise; it had a spirited start, and the dynamics were great.  I would quibble a bit with how fast they took the “water” theme.

Cynthia Wong is one of the four young composers commissioned by Orpheus as part of Project 440, and this performance is the piece's world premiere.  The background of the piece was compelling: her father was checking into hospice care after she barely began this work.  The description in the Program Notes is such that you want to root for her, and her music; but I ended up being relieved that it was over.  There were parts that were nice (e.g., the ending), but overall the message (compassion, per the composer) didn’t come through.  There is “gibberish” written into the piece that left me scratching my head.  The lead violin had quite a few lines, but it was barely audible, despite her pronounced movements.

The Haydn symphony is named “The Hunt” because the last movement was composed as the overture to an opera which begins at a temple to Diana, the goddess of hunting.  It also quotes a hunting call by another composer (Jean-Baptiste Morin).  The movements are (i) Adagio – Allegro; (ii) Andante; (iii) Menuetto; and (iv) Finale: Presto (The Hunt).

The music is simple enough, and easy to enjoy.  The Orpheus Programs Notes is moving to a new format this season: simplicity is the word.  For this symphony it contains some pointers to the listener which are quite useful.  For instance, you know the rhythm in the Minuet is interesting, and the Program Notes explains why.  For some reason the audience decided to applaud after each movement, which is somewhat annoying.  The last movement has a coda which reminds me of the “Joke” quartet: it surely got many people to applaud before the music really ended.  On the other hand, if these folks had read the Program Notes …

The Brahms violin concerto is a piece in the “standard” repertoire of a concert violinist, and much has been written about it.  The Program Notes conjectures how Brahms and Joachim may have cooperated in the writing of this piece.  I don’t have a lot of use for this kind of unverifiable speculation, but – to be charitable – it is at least thought provoking.

Not very long into the performance, I found myself asking the questions: Is this Gil Shaham the violinist?  Is the violin a Strad?  And is this Carnegie Hall?  I have heard Shaham several times before, all in Avery Fisher Hall, and he was always dependable, with a few quibbles from me here or there.  He didn’t botch the Brahms concerto, far from it, yet the performance left much to be criticized.  The sound of his violin didn’t carry well, even with a reduced-sized orchestra that had 11 violins, total.  One is supposed to hear every single instrument on the Carnegie stage, and the orchestra’s sound was at times only one big blob.  The music is complicated, so some of that is expected, and this again raises the question of whether a conductor would have shepherded the program along better.

Which brings me to another genuine question.  Do the orchestra musicians study the entire score so they know how the pieces fit together?  In a regular orchestra that usually is not necessary, other than in the broadest terms.  In a concerto of this complexity, the give and take of the soloist and the orchestra is an important aspect that won’t just happen.  I don’t think anyone was using the full score during the performance (otherwise there would have been a lot of page turning).

Shaham played an encore that was very familiar, but I don’t remember what it is called, or who composed it.

I rushed out afterwards to try to catch the 10:18 pm train, and ended up missing it by about 2 minutes.  So instead I took the 10:38 pm to Metropark, and got home reasonably early.

Monday, October 03, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor. October 1, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 3 Center (Seat HH111, $46.50).

Quintet in A major, D.667, Trout (1819) by Schubert (1797-1828).
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1884-85) by Dvorak (1841-1904).

Quintet: Michelle Kim, violin; Rebecca Young, viola; Carter Brey, cello; Satoshi Okamoto, bass; Anne-Marie McDermott, piano.

This was the first New York Philharmonic concert for us this season, and I was rather looking forward to it.  If I am in the mood to listen to music, but not sure what I really want, the Trout Quintet would be one of the possibilities.  I haven’t listened to that many of Dvorak Symphonies (Eighth and, of course, Ninth) and the concert would broaden my exposure to this composer.  Turns out we heard the seventh symphony in early 2006, I will get back to that later.

Schubert’s quintet was written while he was vacationing in Steyr in Upper Austria.  It was played by his friends in private, and wasn’t published until after his death.  Despite its being characterized as one of the most popular pieces of chamber music, I remember only hearing it once, when I was a graduate student, at Sage Chapel, played by a student quintet.  I also have a 1996 CD with the artists Emanuel Ax, Pamela Frank, Rebecca Young, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer, which I have listened to numerous times.  Yes, it is the same Rebecca Young.  The five movements of the piece are: (i) Allegro vivace; (ii) Andante; (iii) Scherzo, Presto – Trio; (iv) Thema.  Andantino – Variazioni I-V – Allegretto; and (v) Allegro giusto.  Only the fourth movement is based on the eponymous earlier work of Schubert, which tells of a story of a fisherman's eventual successful attempt at catching a trout.  The variations were in turn led by the violin, the piano, the viola, and then jointly by the cello and the bass.  We then lost track as the last part of the movement saw all the instruments taking part in the lead initially.

After all these years of enjoying the piece either on CD or in my mind, there is now probably an idealized version in my head.  And alas, today’s performance didn’t quite meet that standard.  The instruments sounded flat and heavy-footed, the violin every now and then had a (slight) intonation problem, and the piece generally lacked the playfulness I came to expect of it.  Technically the performance was close to flawless (again, only gripe was the intonation problems), and it is a relatively easy piece to perform.

I had no recollection at all of Dvorak’s Seventh, and initially had thought we were listening to it for the first time.  Most people think of the New World when the words Dvorak and Symphony are thrown together.  In that work melodies abound, and the movements all show their distinct characteristics.  The Seventh, however, sounded like one huge continuous canvass, even though distinct movements exist (Allegro maestoso, Poco adagio, Vivace – Poco meno mosso and Allegro).  If I didn’t know it was Dvorak, I would have guessed Mahler.

Even though the orchestration calls for relatively few non-string instruments, the size of the orchestra was huge; the stage was filled from side to side.  The coughing between movements was a bit much, and – perhaps for that reason – there was only minimal pause between the third and fourth movements.  I guess the flu and cold season already started.

After writing the above observations on the Dvorak Symphony, I went back and read my impression after hearing it in January 2006, and discovered that I had a completely different take of that performance, agreeing with the “taut and rigorous” description by the Program Annotator.  I also put Dvorak in the "definitely-no-Mahler" category.  Perhaps the conductor does matter?  Also, there was no pause between the last two movements either, so my theory about it being triggered by all the coughing is incorrect.

Some other interesting tidbits about the work: it was commissioned and first performed by the Royal Philharmonic, and Dvorak himself was quite pleased with it.

By the way, the Port Authority recently raised the tolls to New York to $12, which now makes the trip into NYC quite expensive.  On the other hand, we have managed to find less expensive parking in the area, so things are balancing out somewhat.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Metropolitan Opera – Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. September 30, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony Seat D7 ($71.50).

Story.  Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, falls out of favor with the king.   Meanwhile, the King is in love with Anne’s lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour and decides to charge Anne with adultery and incest, allegedly committed with her former lover Percy and brother Rochefort respectively.  Anne is condemned to death and goes to her execution during the wedding of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour.

Conductor – Marco Armiliato; Jane Seymour – Ekaterina Gubanova, Anne Boleyn – Anna Netrebko, Henry VIII – Ildar Abdrazakov, Lord Rochefort – Keith Miller, Lord Richard Percy – Stephen Costello, Sir Hervey – Eduardo Valdes, Mark Smeaton – Tamara Mumford.

This was the first concert of the season that we attended, and I had high expectations for it, with Anna Netrebko headlining the cast and all.  I wasn’t disappointed.

The synopsis is a bit more complicated than the story line given above.  Smeaton was a secret admirer of Anne Boleyn and tried to help by lying about their relationship, in doing so he managed to get himself tortured and condemned to death.  Hervey is a court official who hangs around a lot, doing what court officials do, such as pronouncing the guilty verdict of various characters.

The opera is in two acts.  The program says there are three scenes in the first act, but I counted four: (i) Greenwich Palace, outside the queen’s apartments; (ii) inside Jane Seymour’s bedchamber; (iii) Greenwich Park; and (iv) a hall in the palace.  The program considers (i) and (ii) one single scene.

The overture is a bit on the long side at about ten minutes.  It started quite ominously, but soon turned sunny and bright, moving into a major key quickly.  Not quite what I expected.  Overall the orchestra sounded crisp and precise.

The set design was functional, but not grand (even though our subscription this year is a “grand spectacle” series).  The last scene happens at the Tower of London but the setting looked more like the Taj Mahal than the menacing structure on Tower Hill; and we didn't see any chopping block.  At the end of the opera, the execution is represented by a masked man holding a long sword.

The roles of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn were sung by Russians.  Perhaps that’s why there were many Russian-speaking audience members.  (We saw many Chinese when The First Emperor was performed, even though there were few Chinese artists in it.)

The role of the young male musician Smeaton was sung by the mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, whom we saw in Das Rheingold swimming in the Rhine suspended by a harness.  Her singing role was certainly more substantial in this opera; and she did great.  I never understand why young men are generally casted using women (the other one would be Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.)  This somehow confuses me to no end.

Tenor Stephen Costello, as Percy, did a reasonable job.  His voice is not as rich as the first-tier tenors but manages to get across even with a strong orchestral accompaniment, most of the time.  The role may be a bit taxing for him as he had to resort to falsetto (at least once) and lost his voice a bit towards the end.  He certainly has some impressive engagements this season, let’s hope his stamina holds up.

The Program Notes says basses like the role of Henry VIII despite the lack of arias.  To me the lines contained many nice melodies, even though they may not be readily hummable.  I also disagree with the assessment that the King’s role was elegant, menacing, and complex; it simply came across as someone who wanted to accomplish an end regardless of the means.  Nonetheless, Ildar Abdrazakov did an admirable job.  His lowest notes were a bit on the weak side, though.

Jane Seymour, sung by Ekaterina Gubanova, had an important role in the opera also.  She basically had Act 1, Scene 2 all to herself.  I don’t know Gubanova’s background, and most of her engagements this years are in Europe.  Characterized as a mezzo-soprano, roles available to hear are perhaps a bit  limited.  If she can reach the high notes required of Anne Boleyn, she can do a great job as Anna Bolena, I am sure.  Right now her roles seem to be along the lines of someone like Stephanie Blythe.

Anna Netrebko, whom we heard in Don Pasquale, had a strong voice that carried well in the auditorium.  She could be clearly heard while seated, lying on her side, and – most impressively – with her back to the audience.  Having seen a few mad scenes, including the one in Lucia di Lammermoor, I was curious how this would turn out.  Instead of the feared embarrassment of over-emoting by the singer, I found it done just right.  One feels sorry for the character.

We could see the singers reasonably well with binoculars.  And every time I looked, Netrebko had a scowl on her face, or her eyebrows were knotted together.  Even during the mad scene, where she resolved to not condemn the new couple so she could obtain grace from God, she still looked mad.  She sang “forgive, forgive, forgive,” but her face said “curse, curse, curse.”  I don’t know if it is because she doesn’t quite know how to act (I heard quite a few people murmur that sentiment,) or the director wants it that way, but I think the overall performance will greatly improve if different emotions are incorporated.  I can easily imagine wistfulness, regret, and other aspects thrown into the mix.

This is the first time the opera was produced by the Met, which is quite unexpected.  On the other hand, if you read the articles in the playbill, you would think this is one of the greatest operas ever written, with phrases like “masterpiece of operatic insight” sprinkled all over.  That would lead to the question of “why is this only discovered by the Met more than 180 years after it was premiered?  A bit of hyperbole, no doubt.

Overall, I stand by my earlier statement that this performance met my high expectations.  I believe tonight’s performance was the second, and there will be another nine – the Met is certainly planning to get a lot of mileage from it.

The opera was on the long side, starting at 7:35 pm, and we got out at around 11:20 pm.  It was raining, and we only had one umbrella, so I went to pick up the car from the garage and returned to Lincoln Center to pick up Anne.  Traffic, especially close by the Lincoln Tunnel entrance, was quite congested.  We didn't get home until way past midnight.  We will do this again tomorrow, to see a New York Philharmonic concert.

There are quite a few references in the newspapers about this program.  One example is from Financial Times, which gave it 3 stars out of 5.  The reviewer manages to be pickier than I am.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Jeremie Rhorer, conductor; Betrand Chamayou, piano. August 23, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra Right (Seat T112, $50).

Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major (“The Philosopher”) (1764) by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, K.414 (1782) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphony No. 29 in A major, K.201 (1774) by Mozart.

This is the third of the Mostly Mozart concerts that we went to. As I type this (Thursday evening) the threat of Hurricane Irene is all over the news, forecast to hit the area directly late Saturday. That would ruin any plans we might have harbored for the season finale, which we were somewhat inclined to do after these three rather enjoyable concerts.

The problem with three concerts in rapid succession is that they tend to blend into each other. Although we went only two days ago, I will have to work very hard to reconstruct how I felt about the concert (we shall see as I didn't jot down any notes.)

Haydn was a contemporary of Mozart’s. Of course Haydn was 20-some years Mozart’s senior, and Mozart died 18 years before Haydn did. The Program Notes indicates that they were rather good friends. I studied Mozart (as part of a German course) when in college, I thought the two didn’t meet that often, and that Haydn’s first reaction to Mozart was on the aloof side. Be that as it may, Haydn chose to stay with a steady employer while Mozart decided to free-lance. Haydn thus had to compose rather prolifically to generate enough fresh music for the Esterhazy court, including more than 80 symphonies. These symphonies tended to be rather short (this one is 16 minutes) and could work with a small orchestra.

This symphony is unusual in that it uses English horns rather than oboes, and uses a slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement for its four movements (the movements being Adagio, Presto, Menuetto and Finale: Presto). Together with the gravity of the music, the symphony is referred to as “Der Philosoph.”

Rhorer, a young French conductor, led a spirited and enjoyable rendition of the symphony. My only beef is, did he need to be so animated? While I don’t expect him to be as economical in his movements as a Toscanini or a Fiedler (admittedly I never saw these maestros in person), Rohrer reminded me of this 3 year kid who was a YouTube sensation.

The Mozart Piano Concerto is a familiar one, and Chamayou, another French musician, did it reasonably well. Certainly his approach was much more balanced than Juho Pohjonen, whom we heard last week. He and the conductor together put together an enjoyable performance. The movements are the traditional Allegro, Andante, and Rondeau: Allegretto. Chamayou also played Mozart’s cadenzas.

Another fact relayed by the Annotator (Paul Schiavo in this case) was that Mozart was an admirer of Johann Christian Bach, son of Johann Sebastian, and that Johann Christian had passed away recently. Some musicologists think Mozart quoted from JC Bach’s work, some are not so sure. Interesting, maybe. Germane? Not so sure.

Mozart wrote his 29th Symphony when he was barely 18, while he was still employed in the court of the prince-archbishop of Salzburg. As in the case of Haydn’s symphony, Mozart had a small orchestra of around 20 musicians. He certainly did wonders with such a small ensemble. The symphony is well-known for the descending octaves in the first and last movements. It seems everything clicked for this reading by the orchestra. Only complaint was maybe it was a bit rushed, so the orchestra didn't sound as crisp as it could. The movements are Allegro moderato, Andante, Menuetto, and Allegro con spirit.

I guess my worry at the beginning of this blog is correct: I don’t remember much about the concert, except in very general terms. Enjoyable, but not memorable.

We managed to find off-street parking after circling the block a few times. Also, Atrium just sent out an email about discounts for tomorrow’s concert (I was talking about the Saturday one earlier). Perhaps we will give that a try. Stay tuned.

Note added on 8/30. We ended up not going on Friday, among other things we needed to do was to get the boat prepared for the hurricane. We did hear a bit of the live broadcast (most of the Schubert piece) on WQXR. This will be our last concert this season. Next season will start in late September with Met's Anna Bolena. And I will be starting another scrap book then.