Thursday, March 24, 2011

NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo - Andre Previn, conductor; Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano. March 21, 2011.

Issac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Center Balcony (CB Center Left; Seat O19, $35).

Green (1967) by Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996).
Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) (1948) by Richard Strauss (1864-1949).
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100 (1944) by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).

The Executive Director of Carnegie Hall and the chairman of the Orchestra came out at the beginning and gave short speeches about the recent events in Japan. The orchestra then played Bach’s Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3 to commemorate the tragedies. The group left Tokyo within a day of the earthquake, I assume many players have loved ones caught up in the still-onging drama, it must be heart-wrenching. Turns out Te Kanawa’s home country of New Zealand also suffered a major earthquake in Christchurch.

All the program pieces were written in the 20th century, and I was hearing them for the first time. I don’t think I had ever seen Andre Previn before, so I was not prepared to see him come on stage with a cane, nor his considerable problem climbing onto the podium. Of the over-80 conductors I have seen (Maazel, Masur, Sir Colin Davis, to name a few) he seems to be the frailest. He conducted while sitting in a chair with reasonable energy, most of the time.

Takemitsu is supposed to be the first well-known Japanese composer of western music. To quote from the Program Notes, the piece is “short, concentrated, and rapturous” and “the pensive opening becomes increasingly agitated …” which eventually gets to “as the work fades towards a quiet bell.” I am not sure I heard any of that.

Te Kanawa is a well-known opera singer. At 65 or so (New York Times says she’s 67), she doesn’t sing much nowadays, so we were looking forward to her performance. Alas, our seats (up in the second to last row) were great for orchestral music, but not so good with her voice. We had trouble hearing her, and what I heard sounded like English (the songs are in German). I assume things would be better if she looked up a bit, or our seats were at a lower level. Thus my principle of buying good tickets is again affirmed. The four last songs should be quite interesting: Spring; September; Going to Sleep; and At Sunset.

I generally like Prokofiev’s work, but only after multiple listenings. This symphony would fall into that category. The sounds are harmonious enough, and there appear to be many melodies. But I will need to familiarize myself with it if I am to enjoy it the same way I enjoy his violin concerto (in G minor) and his Romeo & Juliette ballet. The Four movements are Andante, Allegro marcato, Adagio, and Allegro giocoso.

We went to this concert with the Yangs. Driving in and out of the City was easy enough. We had sandwich and soup at Hale & Hearty Soups before the concert.

Also, I need to put in this obligatory complaint about the lack of leg room in the balcony section.

See the New York Times Review. It is quite brutal, both on Te Kanawa and Previn; it is a lot kinder on the orchestra.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Rudulf Buchbinder, piano. March 19, 2011.

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

Concerto for Small Orchestra, Op. 34 (1927) by Albert Roussel (1869-1937).
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466 (1785) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Waves (1988) by Fred Lerdahl (b. 1943).
Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543 (1788) by Mozart.

The concert began with the Orchestra’s executive director speaking of the recent Japanese tragedies (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plants) and vowing to do the best to get the orchestra to Japan in 2012 as planned (including Sendai). The orchestra then played as a tribute Faure’s Pavanne. The audience applauded afterwards which I thought was slightly inappropriate. On the other hand, there was some awkwardness that needed to be broken up, and applauding perhaps was one way of doing it.

The Program Notes says that Roussel was a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel, but not nearly as well-known. This concerto for small orchestra represents Roussel’s later work and his “mature sound.” For me it also explains why his work is not played that often, since it definitely failed to grab me in any way, except it is thankfully short at about 12 minutes. The three movements are described by the annotator as (i) “rambunctious” Allegro; (ii) “central” Andante; and (iii) “concluding” Presto (well, there is more to the description).

Neither of the two Mozart pieces is considered to be among most popular of the composer's oeuvre (hey, I got to use this word, even though I had to murder the sentence). The piano concerto was composed by Mozart when he was very popular. He finished the Piano Concerto the day before the performance. The Program Notes talks about a subscription series with 151 patrons – evidently you didn’t need a huge audience to make it as a performer/composer during those times. I do not know the nuances of piano performance to distinguish a good one from an exquisite one, so I can just say I found this quite enjoyable. The lines were crisp, the dynamics were fluid, and the interplay between soloist and orchestra was good. The movements are (i) Allegro; (ii) Romanze; and (iii) Rondo: Allegro assai. Someone’s cell phone rang just as the soloist was about to launch into a cadenza; I guess these incidents can’t be helped. If the biography is any guide, Buchbinder is an impressively-credentialed artist.

The symphony was written three years later as a group of three (39, 40, 41). Mozart had fallen on hard times by then. Music historians think he was trying to drum up some business with these compositions, and sadly may not have heard them before he died. I do not find the performance of this Symphony particularly noteworthy, though. The four movements are (i) Adagio - Allegro; (ii) Andante con moto; (iii) Menuetto: Allegretto; and (iv) Finale: Allegro.

After the intermission, a WQXR DJ (forget her name) came on stage and had a short discussion with Lerdahl and violist Nardo Roy about the next piece “Waves.” It probably wasn’t rehearsed before hand; it certainly sounded that way. Two take-aways: waves refer to musical energy, and Roy finds the music to be complex at many levels.

This piece was written 20-plus years ago for three chamber orchestras, including the Orpheus. The orchestra first played it in 1989, a year after it was composed. And that was the last time it played the piece. Unless there are other connections, to say there is a history between the composer and the orchestra is stretching it a bit. What I am curious about is when the orchestra will play it next: another 20 or so years later?

As with the last Orpheus concert I went to, my impression of the orchestra is just so-so. It actually makes me wonder if Carnegie Hall is as acoustically perfect as it is said to be. Nonetheless, I renewed my subscription for the next season. At $25 a ticket it is not a tough decision to make.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Metropolitan Opera – Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. March 15, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Balcony Seat D27 ($87.50).

Story. Hermann is in love with Lisa. He also finds out Lisa’s Countess grandmother, known as The Queen of Spades, holds the secret to the three cards that form a winning combination. Even though Lisa is engaged to Yeletsky, she gives Hermann the key to the house. Hermann first sees the Countess and tries to use a pistol to force her to reveal the numbers; instead she dies from fright. The Countess appears to Hermann in a dream and reveals the numbers as “3, 7, and ace.” Lisa realizes that Hermann is consumed with this and drowns herself. Hermann goes to a card game and wins with the number 3 and 7. When he bets on the ace, he gets the queen of hearts instead and loses. He asks for forgiveness and stabs himself to death.

Conductor – Andris Nelsons. Hermann – Vladimir Galouzine, Prince Yeletsky – Peter Mattei, Lisa – Karita Mattila, The Countess – Dolora Zajick, Pauline/Daphnis – Tamara Mumford.

The Story I wrote above is the most “sensical” line I can put together. The original Pushkin short story has Hermann simply courting Lisa to get to the secret. The opera’s libretto was written by Modest, Tchaikovsky’s brother. Tchaikovsky wanted a more prominent role for Lisa so she ended up meeting with Hermann in Act III and killing herself. Also, in the Pushkin story Hermann went mad and lived in an asylum muttering “three, seven, ace” all the time. Whatever the reason, the story as told by the opera has many gaps. Lisa drowns herself by walking through a curtain; I wouldn’t have realized it had I not read the synopsis. Nonetheless, the story is coherent enough that its holes and inconsistencies didn’t bother me very much.

The Balcony section actually has good acoustics. Our seats were to the side, but we heard all the singers very clearly. We decided to subscribe again for the 2011/12 season and picked Balcony Prime seats. They are less expensive than Dress Circle seats, but the acoustics are a bit muffled for the rear DC seats.

The sets for this opera are quite elaborate. The Program Notes says Tchaikovsky didn’t set the story at the time of Catherine the Great (1762-1796) but in “the 19th-century fairyland known as the ‘18th century’”. Not that I would know the difference – perhaps the costume would be different? In any case, Catherine the Great made a short appearance (she walked in half-way and then left), no doubt to the puzzlement of many in the audience. It is amazing how deep the stage is, and in this opera the depth is used to good effect.

The current issue of Opera News has an article on the role of The Countess. The role is usually sung by a singer near retirement and allows her to have quite a bit of fun acting. There is also considerable singing, but not particularly challenging. The article exempts Zajick as someone at the twilight of her career, though. As a ghost, she climbs from an opening on the floor and crawls to the bed where Hermann is sleeping. Funny, a bit grotesque, but not scary. The ghost is dressed in red, not quite the white with a spot light that in my opinion would work better.

Tchaikovsky spreads the singing around. Other secondary characters also got to sing quite a bit. Of particular note is Tamara Mumford who sang both Pauline (Lisa’s sister) and Daphnis (a young man in the pastorale). Tchaikovsky certainly was capable of writing hummable melodies; for some reason he decided to use a different style. A notable exception in this case was the Pastorale where the melodies are all quite pleasant and singable.

For me the one missing element is the emotional aspect of the story. The work has enjoyable sets, singing, the orchestra played well, and there are some nice passages (even though not singable), but nothing tugs at your heart, which is a pity. Perhaps it is futile to add a love element to a story that is basically deceit-themed?

Overall, still an enjoyable experience. The New York Times review goes into quite a bit of detail about many aspects of the opera. In particular, it points out Mattila first sang in this production in 1995, and her voice is not as strong as before. Indeed I felt she had to strain a bit to get to the high notes. The reviewer also calls Zajick "luxury casting."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Metropolitan Opera – Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. March 12, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony Seat F22 ($100).

Story. This is based on Pushkin’s account of Godunov who became Tsar of Russia in 1598. He does that by killing his brother’s son (thus heir to the kingdom) but remains haunted by the act. Meanwhile, a monastery novice Grigory escapes from the monastery, assumes the identity of the tsarevich Dimitri, assembles an army, and marches onto Moscow. He is cheered on by the Polish royalty Marina Mnishek who wants to ascend to the Russian throne. Godunov dies and names his son as the heir. The opera ends with the crowd getting unruly and marching towards Moscow, with the Holy Fool lamenting Russia’s uncertain fate.

Conductor – Pavel Smelkov; Boris Godunov – Rene Pape, Pimen, a monk – Mikhail Petrenko, Grigory, a monk, later pretender to the Russian throne – Aleksandrs Antonenko, Marina – Ekaterina Semenchuk, Holy Fool – Andrey Popov.

This performance was going to be conducted by Valery Gergiev, who was ill. Pavel Smelkov was the substitute conductor. He is on the 25-member roster of Met conductors, but I don’t recall ever seeing one of his concerts. I wonder if they have understudies in opera performances. I can’t imagine this long and rather complex opera be in everyone’s repertoire. The cast is was a nearly all-“Russian” affair, the notable exception being the German-born bass Rene Pape who sang the role of Godunov.

The Program Notes mentions that one has to put the opera in the context of history to fully appreciate it. For instance, we didn’t see the murder of Dimitri, and while the story ends with Godunov’s death, we do not know if his son ends up getting overturned. I am okay with that, indeed sometimes one has to do quite a bit of research; oftentimes just seeing it would leave you in the fog. No amount of research, however, will prepare me enough to understand how Russian names are put together so I can clearly tell who is who in the cast.

Act III was put in by Mussorsky after the rest of the opera was ready because people wanted to have a major female role in the work. Thus we get the Polish royalty Marina and the catholic priest who urges her to marry Dimitri and convert Russian to the Catholic faith. I am not sure this 45-minute addition does anything to the opera or the story. I would much rather see more context added to the story, or have the opera cut short by 45 minutes altogether.

What is most unfair in this whole thing is that historians nowadays don’t think Godunov had anything to do with the death of Dimitri. I guess he finally got “rehabitated” after several hundred years.

The singing was generally fine, and very clear from where we were seated. My only quibble is with Semenchuk (singing the role of Marina) who ended her phrases a bit too abruptly. (Note: I may have confused her with someone else, in which case my apologies.)

The staging is generally sparse. But they do use a large chorus, perhaps close to 150 members. As the Program Notes indicates, the Russian people were not put into the best light. They were like sheep that were easily led this way or the other. We are talking about late 16th and early 17th centuries here, this perhaps should be expected. And this still happens today.

This is billed as one of the most important Russian operas. I have seen limited number of them, so I can’t really agree or disagree. However, I certainly found “War and Peace” much more compelling. Yesterday I bought tickets to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades”, so I will have another point of comparison. We saw Onegin quite a few years ago, and I forget how I felt about it. Also, this opera reminds me of Macbeth, who also came to power via murder and eventually went crazy. Macbeth's character was better developed, and we could see how his guilt eventually got to him.

The opera ended at about 4:30 pm, so we had time to walk down to Carnegie Deli for an early dinner (Pastrami for me, Corned Beef for Anne) before we headed home.

The New York Times review was for a performance last October although it was for the same cast. Evidently there was a last minute change in the director, who featured rather prominently in the review.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Marino Formenti, piano. March 11, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat T7, $65).

Symphony No. 6 in D major, Le Matin (The Morning), Hob. I:6 (1761) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1985-86/88) by Ligeti (1923-2006).
Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123, Sz 116 (1943) by Bartok (1881-1945).

I learned a few things in this concert, part of the “Hungarian Echoes: A Philharmonic Festival” series conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. First, Haydn was born in an Austrian city very close to Hungry, he didn’t have formal training in music (perhaps very few people had then), and that he composed a series of three symphonies while he was at his employer’s summer residence in Hungary. One of the objectives for Haydn for these “times of day” symphonies was to have passages to highlight the skills of the musicians, this to get on the good side of his new colleagues.

The orchestra is quite small, and Michelle Kim was the concertmaster for this work. She had quite a few virtuoso passages which she did quite well. Our seat (Row T, left side) was very good, and I could hear the parts very distinctly. Other instruments also got themselves showcased in this 20 or so minute work. The four movements are (i) Adagio – Allegro; (ii) Adagio – Andante – Adagio; (iii) Menuet e Trio; and (iv) Finale: Allegro. All in all a delightful piece.

For the Ligeti piece, the originally scheduled pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard had to withdraw because of illness, substituting for him was the Italian pianist-conductor Marino Formenti. In the Instrumentation section of the notes we see interesting items such as doubling alto ocarina, roto-toms, guiro, flexatone, crotales, and others. I counted over 35 different instruments in that list, and yet there were fewer than 20 musicians, including the conductor, the soloist, and the page turner. Indeed there was only one string player for each voice. Go figure.

Brandenburg concerto this is not. There was a lot of banging on the piano, and the orchestra’s parts aren’t simple either. Ligeti at first had only three movements for this work: Vivace molto ritmico e preciso; Lento e deserto; and Vivace cantabile. After listening to it, he decided it needed more work and added Allegro risoluto, molto ritmicao; and Presto luminoso. Well, perhaps it needed more work in other aspects also.

I actually thought this was the first Ligeti piece I ever heard, but upon checking my prior blogs, found out it wasn’t. I suspect I will forget about this performance also.

Both Dicterow and Maples returned for the second half of the program where we find a full orchestra seated for Bartok’s work. Evidently they wanted to give Kim her time under the spotlight. Whatever you say about the New York Philharmonic, it certainly has a great depth of players, many would qualify as leader in any major orchestra.

I heard the Concerto for Orchestra a few years ago and – despite my general fondness for Bartok’s music – didn’t appreciate it very much. My experience is quite different this time. I am quite sure it is the same program notes, but I found the music to follow the description quite well. There are three solemn movements(Introduction: Andante non troppo – Allegro vivace; Elegy: Andante non troppo and Finale: Pesante – Presto) with two interleaving lighter ones (Game of Couples – Allegro scherzando and Interrupted Intermezzo: Allegretto). The Intermezzo contains a reference to Shostokovich’s Seventh Symphony. Evidently Bartok disliked Shostokovich; why parodying his music would be an affront, I don’t understand.

The sad story surrounding this composition was that it was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzy, at that time the conductor of the Boston Symphony. Bartok was quite ill with what was eventually diagnosed as leukemia, and this was a way his Hungarian friends went about supporting him. Ironically Koussevitzy wasn’t particularly fond of Bartok’s music until this work. Bartok passed away a couple of years later.

Given tonight’s experience, I am tempted to see if I can go to the other two concerts in this series. It is quite unlikely with Anne’s and my schedule the next couple of weeks, though. I wrote this review a day after I heard the concert, and – alas – already forgot a lot about what I wanted to say. To be fair, there is an opera of more than four hours' length in between.

After lunch at China Fun, Anne and I drove up the Hudson to see if we could find any bald eagles. We saw quite a few of them a couple of winters back. Traffic was horrific due to flooding caused by recent heavy rains. We couldn’t drive up the Saw Mill River Parkway, and the area around Elmsford was cordoned off because of rising waters. We ended up having to skip all the places we wanted to visit except for where we were at the last outing: a parking lot across the river from Bear Mountain. No bald eagles, though; the extra 120 miles of driving for nothing.

Back to the review. The New York Times review is very positive. The reviewer goes to great lengths to describe Ligeti’s concerto.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Daniel Harding, conductor; Glenn Dicterow, violin; Lisa Milne, soprano. March 4, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat DD103, $65).

Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 35 (1916) by Szymanowski (1882-1937).
Symphony No. 4 (1892 and 1899-1901, rev. 1901-11) by Mahler (1860-1911).

We bought tickets to a concert with Dicterow as a soloist many years ago; we didn’t go because of a heavy snow storm. The concert still went on, but we couldn’t make it out of the house.

Karol Syzmanowski was a Polish composer influenced greatly by the French. This one-movement, 25-minute long concerto is difficult to pin down. It calls for a large orchestra (two harps, for instance; and several percussion instruments) which didn’t work out too well today because the soloist sounded very weak. Perhaps it’s the seat I was in, but the violin sounded so distant that I thought it had the mute on. Dicterow did manage to show off his technical ability, there was a whole passage of harmonics that he did superbly. His intonation tonight was great; I used to complain quite a bit about his solo passages while acting as the Concertmaster.

Given he doesn’t get to play as a soloist that often, I wonder if the selection of this piece is the wisest. You would think he would want people to walk away thinking “wow, he is a great violinist” rather than scratching their heads. The way it came across was he was doing a very difficult etude and paying a lot of attention to the music (he had the score in front of him).

Before today I had heard Mahler’s 1st and 5th through 9th symphonies. I was glad that I could check another one off the list.

Overall this was a very nice symphony, although I wouldn’t have attributed it to Mahler if I didn’t know. It was not “typical” in its simplicity; neither does it contain many of the meanderings that characterize a Mahler symphony. In one regard it was typical: length. This one is advertised at 58 minutes, and indeed lasted that long. The four movements are (i) Deliberately. Do not hurry; (ii) In easy motion. Without haste; (iii) Serene (Poco Adagio); and (iv) Very leisurely. No allegro or anything of that sort. Every now and then there would be an intense passage, sometimes where you wouldn’t expect them.

Per the Program Notes, the symphony was sketched out by Mahler during the last few days of summer 1899. It must somehow be gestating in his mind as he finished most of it during the following summer at his new cottage at Maiernigg on the south shore of Lake Worthersee. He continued to revised it afterwards, though.

Sheryl Staples had quite a few solo lines that were quite interesting, especially in the second movement. For some reason she brought a second violin with her, and switched from one to the other. One could say one sounded more brilliant than the other, but that doesn’t explain the need for two. I must say it is not easy to switch instruments without having them bump into each other, but she had that worked out well, and the pace of the music wasn’t particularly fast.

The third movement – caused by Mahler’s vision of the deceased at a church cemetery, per Bruno Walter – was indeed quiet and serene.

The fourth movement (relatively short at about 8 minutes) calls for a soprano soloist. Unfortunately the first thing you notice about Milne is her girth; she seems to be four times the size of Maples. Even then, she didn’t sound as strong as expected: adds to my theory there are no good seats in Avery Fisher Hall. The song “The Heavenly Life” starts with “We enjoy the pleasures of Heaven, And therefore avoid earthly ones.” It talks about various saints (Peter, Ursula, Martha, and others) and related activities (e.g., fishing and Peter). Supposedly it should start with simple, childlike joys; I didn’t quite get it, though.

This is also a New York Philharmonic debut for the British conductor Daniel Harding. He appears to be quite young (35 per New York Times), and did a good job with the Mahler. However, he seemed to want to milk to the fullest the last notes of the Mahler symphony: he kept his hands up for what felt like ages. Nonetheless, the symphony didn’t feel long.

Overall, the concert was just okay. The audience felt the same way: most of the applause was polite, not enthusiastic.

Our trip in was a breeze, there was no traffic at all. There was a 30-minute delay getting into the Lincoln tunnel on the way back, though.

The New York Times reviewer went to the opening concert Thursday and had some quibbles with the Mahler performance, attributing the problems to the conductor and the orchestra not knowing each other. I was hoping the reviewer would explain why the Concertmaster used two violins; alas, he didn’t. Another review claims the second violin was tuned a step high.