Saturday, April 30, 2011

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Arabella Steinbacher, violin. April 29, 2011.

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

Serenade in E-flat major, Op. 7 (1881) by Richard Strauss (1864-1949).
Concerto funebre (1939, rev. 1959) by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963).
Adagio in E major for Violin and Orchestra, K. 261 (1776) by Mozart (1756-91).
Rondo in C major for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373 (1871) by Mozart.
Symphony No. 104 in D major “London” (1795) by Haydn (1732-1809).

I am writing this blog before I start on last night’s New York Philharmonic performance. I didn’t take too much notes for this event, and would want to get my thoughts down while they are still fresh. I will post it after I post the Philharmonic review, so they will appear in proper chronological order.

We started driving a little after 5 pm (in the car with the fixed tire), and soon found out both in-bound tunnels had 30+ minutes – and growing - wait times. So we turned around, parked the car at the train station, and went up by train instead. We got to the Carnegie Hall area early enough that we could get a burrito at Chipotle’s before the concert.

The first piece of the evening was written by Strauss when he was seventeen, and his composition style was still very much influenced by classical composers such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. At least that’s what the program notes would have you think. They could have fooled me. While the sound was quite tonal, in no way did the composition sound like a piece from the Mozart/Beethoven school. Overall it sounded pleasant enough, and is downright amazing considering it was written by a seventeen year old young man (kid, actually). At that age I was trying to recognize what a I-IV-V-I cadence sounded like. Strauss would go on to write music for another 60 years, most of which I yet have to understand (or hear). The piece is orchestrated for woodwinds and four horns, thirteen players total. Yet the small group managed to sound tentative and muddled. The concert wasn’t off to a good start.

Arabella Steinbacher was born and raised in Germany (German father, Japanese mother). She looks younger than her age (30), and plays the “Booth” Stradivarius (1716) on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation. She got her break in 2004 when she was a last-minute substitute for another soloist who had gotten ill. I guess there are several examples of this (the conductors Bernstein and Morlot immediately come to mind), and not surprising given there must be many great musicians who do not get the chance to shine.

The concerto was written by the composer when the Nazis annexed Czechoslovakia; he called it Music for Mourning until it was revised in 1959 and given its current name. The music was smuggled out of Germany and got its premiere in Switzerland in 1940. (I do wonder why word didn’t get back to the Germans.) Per the program notes, it is mostly a dark piece and references old chorales, however, the sound is thoroughly modern. The demands on the violinist are considerable, but only limited range of techniques is called for (e.g., no left-hand pizzicato). Steinbacher played with gusto but a limited dynamic range. And “sad” or “hopeless” isn’t the emotion I would associate with the music. In that context the “hope” of the last two or so minutes didn’t come across in any dramatic way. Steinbacher’s biography says she got great reviews playing Sibelius’s Concerto, which to many describe the composer’s frustration and eventual accommodation with his own shortcomings as a violinist. I wonder how that sounded.

The movements of this concerto are Introduction: Largo – Adagio – Allegro di molto – Choral: Langsamer Marsch.

After the intermission, Steinbacher played two Mozart pieces that are familiar to the violin student. She did them well, but not exceptional. For an encore she played a rather difficult solo piece that clearly demonstrated her technical abilities. (She announced the piece in German, I think; and I failed to catch it.)

The one thing constant in her performance is the great sound she makes with the violin. It is amazing how a 300-year old instrument can take whatever an artist throws at it and still yield a clean and pleasant sound. There were times I worried something would break, though.

Haydn wrote a total of twelve symphonies while he was staying in London (on two separate occasions). Evidently people don’t quite know why No. 104 is called “London”. Compared to other Haydn symphonies I am familiar with (definitely not all of them), this is rather long at an advertised 29 minutes. And it felt that long, given the way the orchestra played it. Not because every now and then someone would come in early or sound too loud (and there were quite a few instances of those), but because “uninspired” is the best way to describe how it was played. When played well (or just reasonably well), Haydn’s symphonies are easy to understand, and a delight to listen to. Neither is the case here. These are not just my expectations, even the program notes uses words and phrases such as “organic connection”, “sweet”, “deceptively simple”, and “whim” to describe the composition. The movements of the symphony are (i) Adagio – Allegro; (ii) Andante; (iii) Menuetto: Allegro; and (iv) Finale: Allegro spiritoso.

This is the third Orpheus performance this season we attended, and I still haven’t gotten used to the orchestra’s sound yet. Even though the orchestra is on the small side, there is still considerable distance (physically and musically) between the last person in the violin section and the double bass section. While there may be few instances they need to adjust to each other during a performance, it illustrates the difficulties these players face if they need to do so. If after 40 years you can’t quite achieve unity in the sound, it may be time to try it with a conductor. But then there will be nothing special about the orchestra.

We left immediately at the conclusion of the Haydn Symphony, but still missed the train by 10 minutes; not so bad compared to times we missed by just a couple. We got home after midnight. The tradeoff is if you drive in, you worry about traffic, and if you take the train in, you worry if you will miss the train for the return trip.

I found a review of the same program played in Troy the day before. There the orchestra also played a couple of encores. In our case, we don't know if any encores were played by the Orchestra.

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano. April 30, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat W116, $65).

Pagodes from Estampes (Prints), for solo piano (1903) by Debussy (1862-1918).
Coleurs de la Cite Celeste (Colors of the Celestial City) (1963) by Messiaen (1808-92).
Symphony No. 5 (1901-02) by Mahler (1860-1911).

The original program listed all three pieces in the Estampes work, but the insert in the Playbill says only Pagodes will be played, then followed by Coleurs. Our puzzlement was answered later during the concert.

Alan Gilbert first talked about the program, describing how Coleurs is like a slide show, with its abruptly changing scenes. He also said Messiaen was basically a tonal composer, in his own sort of way, and that he liked to put in bird songs in his works. He demonstrated some of the ideas with a couple of passages played by the orchestra. When asked to add something, Emanuel Ax says Pagodes also painted a picture, in this instance of a Chinese city (Anne thought it should be Japanese, given what the program notes says), and one could clearly see things such as tiled roof tops. Well, I suspect for me they have to put the print right in front of me, since I don’t possess the same imagination as these artists evidently do. I am also reminded of what was relayed to me of a particular person with perfect pitch: he sees different colors with different notes. Since I don’t have perfect pitch (although I can get very close to a 440-A on my violin), that sort of discussion is mostly academic for me.

The Debussy piece was quite short at 4 minutes, and a couple of themes were used multiple times. And if you imagine really hard, you can see a city landscape, or convince yourself you do. The oriental pentatonic scale was used. Given how rich some passages sounded, I wonder if Debussy slipped in some other notes from the “western” scale; but I didn’t catch any.

One could make a case that the Messiaen piece isn’t really a piano solo with an ensemble (no strings). The xylophone certainly had a role that was at least as prominent as the piano, although the latter does have several “solo” passages. The transitions are indeed abrupt at times as the music goes from one “frame” to another, however, I didn’t get any colors (or gemstones, for that matter) from it. Also, Messiaen the devout Catholic included many religious overtones in the composition: those also escaped me.

One possible reason for shortening the program for a few minutes was that this was Emanuel Ax’s 100th performance with the Philharmonic, starting from about 35 years ago. The math is right as each program gets repeated 3 or so times during a Philharmonic “run”. To mark the occasion, Ax was awarded the “New York Philharmonic Society Award” which has been given out about 65 times during the orchestra’s 170 years, and there are only 5 living recipients before tonight. The audience applauded enthusiastically. I certainly have enjoyed quite a few of Ax’s performances with this Orchestra.

I was looking forward to the Mahler symphony, probably my favorite among Mahler’s ten symphonies. The last time the New York Philharmonic played this work was in January 2009, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. I attended one of those concerts. I was eager to do some comparisons, even though my memories of the event have faded after a couple years. I did post my thoughts on that performance, though. They were quite brief, but included the phrase “came away very impressed.”

The Symphony also started with the horns coming in quite loud. However, Gilbert seemed to take the first movement’s marking (Funeral March: With measure step. Strict. Like a cortege) a bit too seriously, the tempo was quite strict, and somehow in turn made the music sounded sweeter than I would like. The second movement (Stormily. With greatest vehemence) was done energetically enough. The third movement (Scherzo: Vigorously, not too fast) is the longest, which one usually doesn’t associate with a Scherzo movement. There is quite a bit of slapstick playing, and to my amazement I noticed that the pitch of the slapstick can change (or is it my imagination?). However, sometimes in the flourish of music not everyone was in sync. The fourth movement (Adagietto: Very slow) is well-known. The orchestra slurred the notes a bit too much and sounded too complex for my taste (I like lines clean, and sounds distinct). The last movement (Rondo-Finale: Allegro giocoso. Lively) started well and was quite enjoyable. The whole symphony seemed a little rushed, although it took 70 minutes.

Being a regular Philharmonic subscriber, I would like to think Gilbert’s rendition of the symphony was at least as good as Dudamels, but – alas – I could not say so. I often compare Mahler’s music with changing landscape where you see new things after wandering for a while and turn a corner. What distinguishes a great conductor is the ability to integrate the wanderings into the overall picture. Many passages were done very well tonight, but Gilbert failed to stitch everything together into one coherent piece of work, there being many instances of not knowing where the music would lead.

The audience gave a very enthusiastic applause, though. I guess being able to get through Mahler is no small feat, but I thought the New York crowd was very sophisticated and demanding.

The New York Times review is very positive, calling the Mahler performance “strongly conceived, vigorous.” The reviewer also attributed the shortening of the Ax program to Ax’s conviction that it would sound closer knit together.

When we picked up our car at the garage, the attendant pointed out to us we had a flat tire. This after only 3000 miles on the car, quite frustrating. With the help of Anne (who read the instruction manual) I managed to change the tire in 15 minutes, dropping a lot of sweat in the process. We had to limp home at about 50 mph since this is one of those mini-spares.

Friday, April 15, 2011

St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra – Yuri Temirkanov, Conductor; Alisa Weilerstein, Cello. April 14, 2011.

Issac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Center Balcony (CB Center Left, Seat O21, $46.)

Prelude to Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, Op. 4 (1903-1904) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).
Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107 (1959) by Dmitri Shostakovich (1806-1975).
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98 (1884-1885) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

We again went to this concert with the Yangs. Even though traffic reports seemed to indicate congestions everywhere, we managed to get to Carnegie Hall in good time, the last few blocks did give us some problems. We had a quick bite at a new restaurant on 8th Ave (don’t remember its name, and Google map doesn’t show it), reasonable food, reasonable prices.

There were scattered empty seats in the auditorium, and in our section there were a lot of students. These balcony seats in Carnegie Hall are worse than economy seats on an airline. At my modest height I feel my knees already touch the head of the person in front of me. The gentlemen next to us must be six foot tall, and there simply was no way for him to be comfortable. Good thing we had empty seats to move to this evening.

It is a large orchestra, for the Brahms symphony there were 16 first violins, 26 second violins and violas (couldn’t tell them apart given where I was), 10 cellos, and 8 basses. The program called for only one percussion (a triangle) and a set of timpani (which never sounded exactly in tune). Also, the number of woodwind and brass instruments is quite small.

The Prelude is a short piece at less than five minutes. It actually used the largest number of musicians, including two harps. This is the first time I saw a man playing a harp, so I guess Vienna Philharmonic will be contacting him soon. I enjoyed this piece, the sounds were pleasant, and – despite the large orchestra – soft and sweet. I didn’t know Rimsky-Korsakov wrote operas, and he actually wrote 15 of them. Anne, however, thought the orchestra was not together, and that turned out to be much of her refrain for the evening. The conductor didn’t use a baton, I wonder if that contributed to the occasional imprecision.

I generally enjoy Shostakovich’s music, although usually not at the first listen. The cello concerto, however, is easy to listen to, and easy to like. The Program Notes says Shostakovich was inspired by Prokofiev who wrote one a few years earlier dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich. I am not sure “inspired” is exactly the right word, I am thinking along the lines of "competitiveness".

The concerto begins with a four-note motif that isn’t quite tonal (yet singable), and the motif gets worked into the piece multiple times. The first movement (Allegretto) was very enjoyable, with a solo horn often in dialog with the cellist. There is also a celesta that adds quite a bit of color to the music. There was some scattered applause after the first movement. The second movement (Moderato) was played a bit too softly by the soloist for the nose-bleed and cramped-leg set; this is particularly true with the second half which contained a lot of harmonics. Interestingly, the Cadenza is considered a separate movement. Not being a cellist, I can’t tell if it required a high degree of virtuosity, but it didn’t come across as a technically challenging movement. The fourth movement (Allegro con moto) sounded okay, and as advertised did come to a close with a strike of the timpani. I wonder my perception of a great first movement and just-okay later ones is due to the fact that one could digest only so much new Shostakovich in one sitting, or the quality of the performance dropped after the first movement.

In any case, Alisa Weilerstein is an engaging young (born 1982) soloist, and I suspect we will hear from her quite a bit.

We heard Brahm’s fourth symphony in October, 2010 at the New York Philharmonic, with Alan Gilbert conducting. I didn’t realize that until I got home and looked at my earlier blog posts. And I still find the fourth movement unfamiliar.

Anne is correct in saying the orchestra is not together. The concertmaster, among others, on several occasions either jumped in too early, or was over enthusiastic in terms of volume. And sometimes you wonder if the music was written so one section was to follow another with a split-second lag. All these add up to a muddled effect every now and then. But the sound in general was just very pleasant, and it was obvious from the first descending third of the first movement (Allegro non troppo). I complained about the Carnegie acoustics before, so it had to be the orchestra.

There are other things one could nit-pick about the performance. The second movement (Andante moderato) was played through with a nice sound but not much emotion. It is a pity that the melancholy one usually associates with the movement was not to be found. The third movement (Allegro giocoso) was lively and enjoyable. It was at my last concert that I realized that Brahms loved variations; on that occasion it was Variations on a Theme of Schumann written in 1854, tonight it was the fourth movement written a good 30 years later. The Program Notes here says there are 30 variations, and Alan Gilbert said there were 32 in the October 2010 concert. I am glad even professionals don’t agree. For me, it just sounded like a “regular” fourth movement (Allegro energico e passionato).

A few other thoughts. Since the four-note motif in Shostokovich was used multiple times in the concerto, you could hear people humming it during intermission. I was sure I would remember it, but to my dismay had forgotten it by the time we finished the concert. A tribute to the composer who can do so much with so little. Similarly, the first movement of Brahms builds on simple descending thirds and rising sixths to get to a rich symphonic texture. Both Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostokovich managed very complex sounds with minimal use of percussion instruments . Contrast that with some modern composers who despite the use of everything under the sun still manage to write music that is more interesting to look at than to listen to.

In any case, even though there were quite a few things one could quibble with, the overall concert was very enjoyable.

[A later note.] We left right after the concert so wouldn't have to wait for the attendant to bring up our car. Thus we missed the encore. I also found the New York Times review, which calls the orchestra sound "Russian." I am not objecting to that characterization, but recall a Beijing concert I attended in the mid 90s sung by a Russian Army Chorus. I told people it sounded like the ending scene of "Hunt for Red October," and certainly was very different from what I heard today.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. April 7, 2011.

92nd Street Y, Theresa L. Laufmann Concert Hall, Orchestra (Seat H103, $5.)

Trio: Joseph Kalichstein, piano; Jaime Laredo, violin; Sharon Robinson, cello.
Pamela Frank, violin
Cynthia Phelps, viola
Liang Wang, oboe

Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22 (1853) by Clara Schumann (1819-1896).
-- Andante molto
-- Allegretto: Mit zarten Vortrage
-- Leidenschaftlich schnell

Variations for Piano on a Theme of R. Schumann, Op. 9 (1854) by Brahms (1833-1897).
Romances for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94 (1849) by Robert Schumann (1810-1856).
-- Nicht schnell
-- Einfach, inning
-- Nicht schell

Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842) by R. Schumann.

There is no misprint on the cost of this concert, $5. I first found out about this group when I was reading through the program at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory, this group is scheduled to perform there later this month. Within a day or so I got this email from Goldstar which offered tickets for a processing fee of $5, so I grabbed it. Since I was planning to buy tickets for the June 2 Leon Fleisher concert at the Y anyway, I thought I would go also. Because of her commitment to teach an ESL class at the Sayreville Library, Anne couldn’t go.

The auditorium is reasonably respectable, with a sign saying “occupancy by more than 922 people is dangerous” giving an indication of its capacity (there is also a balcony level). I was also surprised at how few people were at this concert. I would say the orchestra level was less than half full, but they managed to get a lot of students to come and they were lining up for the balcony seats.

The size of the audience, however, has no bearing on the quality of the concert. This is one of the more enjoyable concerts I have attended, and got better as the afternoon progressed.

The program is pretty much an all Schumann affair, with works by Robert and Clara Schumann. The Brahms piece was written after Robert’s early 1854 suicide attempt, and incorporates one of Clara Schuman’s theme in one of the variations. The program says Brahms wrote it as a tribute to his mentor, a token of Brahms’ affection for Clara, and the work was an early manifestation of Brahms’ fondness of the variation.

I had never heard anything by Clara Schumann before. The three violin romances did not break any new musical grounds for me (nor for the genre, I imagine), but they are really pleasant pieces. The program notes calls them “charming, if lightweight.” Indeed the pieces, totaling a little over 10 minutes, sounded warm, but tinged with sadness.

It is probably difficult not to try to count the number of variations when it is being performed. And it is not easy. In any case, I counted 20, but it could be fewer than that. According to the Program Notes, there are several quotes from Robert and Clara’s works. While there is familiarity, I can’t claim I caught them.

Liang Wang is the principal oboist at the New York Philharmonic. Here he performed three relatively simple romances by Schumann. The sound was beautiful, and the romances contain a trove of melodies, many of which sounded melancholic. The audience was very appreciative of the performance.

Cynthia Phelps is the principal violist of the New York Philharmonic, and Pamela Frank is a very well-known violinist (whom I had never seen in concert). I was especially surprised to see Frank playing second fiddle in the quintet. I have stated many times most string quartets sound like a violin piece with accompaniment by three other string instruments. Our ears find it easier to catch the higher pitch of the first violin; and indeed many compositions put the melody in that instrument. Not so with this one. The parts (including the piano) are well-balanced, with different instruments taking the lead at different times. Frank actually seemed to enjoy the role very much, beaming all the time, and looking at her fellow players a lot. Having said that, the viola still sounded weak. The cello also could sound a little louder.

I enjoy Schubert’s Trout Quintet a lot (turns out Frank is also the violinist in the CD I have) – who wouldn’t – and I have to rank this one up there. I am embarrassed to say this is the first time I ever heard it. For the record, the movements are: (i) Allegro brillante; (ii) In modo d’una marcia: Un poco largamente – Agitato; (iii) Scherzo: Molto vivace; and (iv) Allegro ma non troppo.

Sometimes enjoyable things in life is free, or almost free. I am glad I came to this concert, and would have gladly paid full price for the seat.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Leon Fleisher, piano. April 3, 2011.

Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Ontario, Canada, Second Balcony Right (Seat A10, C$10.)

Toccata and Fugue for Piano Left Hand, Op. 56 (1950) by Jeno Takacs (1902-2005).
Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52a (arr. Brahms) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).
Chaconne for the Left Hand from the Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 (arr. Brahms) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).
Fanatasie in F minor, D. 940 (Op. posth. 103) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).
Slavonic Dances by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904).
- A-flat Major, Op. 46, No.3
- E minor, Op. 72, No. 2
- G minor, Op. 46, No. 8

We got into Toronto the day before and – as usual – only had a vague idea what we wanted to do. We stopped by the RCM at around 1:30 pm and decided to get tickets for the 3 pm concert. The box office had a sign outside saying rush tickets for $10, and we were told they would be on sale “in a couple of minutes.” Although we would have gladly paid $35 or so for a ticket, who would argue with a $10 deal? Sure enough, that is what we got, and the seats (on the side but facing forward) are okay.

It is only after I read up on the Program Notes that I found out we were going to have a new program (the one listed above.) Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, Leon’s wife, was to join him in the Brahms Waltzes and the Schubert and Dvorak pieces.

Leon first came out and explained he had surgery on his right thumb a few months ago, and while the surgery was a success, the healing process was taking longer than anticipated and thus not quite “performance-ready.” I found out later that actually his life as a performer has been a bitter-sweet one. He played with the New York Philharmonic at age 16 and was called “the pianistic find of the century” by the conductor. However, he developed a neurological disorder that lost him the use of his right hand when he was in his 30s. Only recently did a series of treatments (including Botox) made him well enough to play with both hands. I cannot imagine the devastation something like this would cause, but he certainly seems to have triumphed over it. One just wishes he has enough time to leave behind enough of a legacy for the public to enjoy.

I don’t know enough about piano playing to say much about how good the concert was. It was noteworthy though that Leon managed to produced a lot of great sound without having to attack the piano much, while Katherine (who appears much younger) needed to pound on it a lot. Both sounded great, though Anne said Katherine’s playing was too percussive. I also noticed there was not much use – if at all – of the pedal which added to the crispness of the sound. The Slavonic Dances are quite familiar, and were quite enjoyable. It should be noted that Leon played the right side of the Dances. I am not sure how well the Bach Chaconne worked; it didn't sound as good or natural compared to being played on a violin.

One note on the acoustics. In one word, excellent. There is a lot of wood in the auditorium, and what looked like felt/soundsoak from a distance is actually concrete. Of course, the hall being a bit on the small side helps.

He will be playing at the 92nd Street Y in June. I am going there on Thursday April 7 and will try to get tickets to that event. I would gladly pay the $40 or $57 (not sure which) for each ticket. That program is very close to the “might have been” for this concert. Let’s hope his thumb recovers enough for that to happen.

Monday, April 04, 2011

National Symphony Orchestra – Ivan Fischer, conductor; Jozsef Lendvay, Jr, violin. April 1, 2011.

Concert Hall at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Tier 1 (Seat C7, $65.)

Overture to La gazza ladra (1817) by Rossini (1792-1868).
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 6 (1817-1818) by Paganini (1782-1840).
Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”) in E-flat major, Op. 97(1850) by Robert Schumann (1810-1956).

When David asked me if I wanted to attend this concert, I said yes, enthusiastically. I always find it interesting to attend concerts in other cities to see how these events compare with what we get in the New York area. This time the group consisted of nine people, David’s group of 4, and Johnny’s group of 4.

We had dinner at Thai Place. We picked it for convenience and proximity to the GWU metro station where we could pick up the Kennedy Center shuttle. The food turned out to be good, and reasonably inexpensive.

I played in this concert hall about 35 years ago (it was very new then) and hadn’t been back since. I did go to the Opera House on a couple of occasions. It looks a bit worn at the edges (especially the carpet) but is generally in great shape. Our seats had a great view of the stage.

I had never heard of the opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) but certainly knew part of the tune. It is a short and delightful piece, and the orchestra gave it a spirited rendition.

I had never heard of Lendvay before, and neither had David. He ran onto the stage, and with his long hair could be confused with Paganin (perhaps that’s the idea). Paganini’s violin pieces were composed to mainly show off his skills as a violinist, so they tend to be long on flourishes and difficult passages. The piece was played at a quick tempo and the soloist rose to the challenge. He executed flawless the many technical challenges: double stop glissandos, flying arpeggios, staccatos, double harmonics, and runs. He should be forgiven for missing a note here or there. Indeed the audience applauded after the first movement which I thought was appropriate. After a relatively short second movement the piece continued without pause to the third. The three movements of the concerto are: Allegro maestoso, Adagio, and Rondo: Allegro spiritoso. Lendvay’s instrument is the 1693 “Ex-Ries” Stradivarius. One could quibble a bit with the tone quality at the higher pitches, but certainly it carried well and sounded excellent. The one knock on the performance is Lendvay seemed to be a bit careless during the less challenging pieces. He played an encore that I suspect he composed to showcase his own technical ability.

I heard a Schumann symphony not that long ago and really enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to this performance. Unfortunately, the best adjective to describe the performance is “uninspired.” The sounds are clear enough, the players were quite together, and the balance between the voices was good. Yet there was little dynamic variation or emotion attached to the player. I think Fischer tried to inject some life towards the end, but it was too little, too late. The four movements are Lebhaft, Scherzo:Sehr massig, Nicht schnell, Feierlich, and Lebhaft.

Both the soloist and the conductor were born in Budapest, perhaps this is how the connection between them was made.

The acoustics of the auditorium were reasonable, but not brilliant. There were quite a few empty seats.

Metropolitan Opera – Wagner’s Das Rheingold. March 30, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony Seat G11 ($87.50).

Story. See prior post.

Conductor – Fabio Luisi; Rheinmaidens: Woglinde – Lisette Oropesa, Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnson Cano, Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford, Alberich – Richard Paul Fink, Fricka – Stephanie Blythe, Wotan – Bryn Terfel, Freia – Wendy Bryn Harmer, Fasolt – Franz-Josef Selig, Fafner – Hans-Peter Konig, Froh – Adam Diegel, Donner – Dwayne Croft, Loge – Arnold Bezuyen, Mime – Gerhard Siegel, Erda – Patrician Bardon.

We saw this as part of our (first) Ring series in Seattle in August, 2009. There is a possibility we will see all four operas (in sequence, at that) in the coming couple of years. We will see Die Walkure in May, and have Gotterdammerung as part of our subscription next season. So I just need to remember to buy tickets for Siegfried.

Speaking of tickets. When they went on sale (forget when) Anne and Chung Shu scrambled to buy four of them. Anne couldn’t go because of her business trip to Beijing. I put her ticket on Stubhub a couple of weeks ago, and sold it for $120 within hours (I netted $102). I notice others listed similar tickets at $200 or so. I don’t think that many got sold, and the other sold in the same section went for something like $75. So timing and asking prices are important: and I lucked out. A couple of days ago Shirley decided not to go, so we tried to sell it at the Plaza. We stood there for about 15 minutes and not one person came by to enquire. We decided to use the seat as a coat “hanger” but some lady eventually took the seat (I guess we could have asked for some money, but we didn’t.)

A lot has been written about the new Met set for the Ring cycle. I heard figures as high as $15M quoted (some critics say $40M, the Met says $17M, oh the beauty of accounting), and there seems to no debate that the set weighs 45 tons, and the building has to be reinforced to accommodate it. All good … until you find out the set is built by the design company owned by the director Robert Lepage. Self dealing, anyone?

Minimalist, versatile, brilliant are words that one can use to describe the set. Cheesy, “this again?”, and “what were they thinking” are other ways to do it. I saw the Damnation of Faust production, also by Lepage, and liked it. Even though I had not watched a complete Cirque du Soleil show at that time (only thing I saw were their TV ads), I already guessed there was some linkage to that genre. The use of wires to suspend people, the computer generated distortions as people take their steps, and the rigid march of soldiers are all replicated here. Novel the first time, a bit much the second time around.

The set is basically 24 planks (say 3 feet wide) that run along the length of the stage. Each plank is in three sections that can break off and pivot in various ways, and thus can be arranged to represent different “scenes”. When they are all lined up and bubbles projected onto them, we have the Rheinmaiden scene; when they are rotated on a horizontal axis, we have a staircase, when a few of them are made horizontal, we have the stage for the giants. If one has read up on the story then things can make sense, otherwise a great imagination is needed for any inkling of the setting of the act.

There is a scene where Freia is to be freed only if the gold used as ranson covers here completely. In this case she is encased in a net and the gold plates (or rather gold-colored plastic pieces) were piled on her, which didn’t work at all – everyone could still see her after all the gold is thrown into the net. You could nearly see (and definitely feel) Freia’s concern if things would hold up and she wouldn’t be dropped. Similarly, the body of Fasolt was disposed by raising the planks so he would slide off. He did hang on for balance. This was a lighter moment in the opera, and many laughed.

Alberich had a helmet (which looked more like a piece of chainmail) that he used to change into a snake and a toad. In the Seattle show there was a bit of magic to it, even though you know they made quick switches by darkening the auditorium for a split second. Here the head of the snake was brought out by a couple of stage hands, and on the other the tail flips around. And they don’t pretend there is any magic at all as Alberich (the man) just backs away from the stage.

With all the criticism, the staging overall works reasonably well. It reminds me of the South Amboy station which cost $45M (Wikipedia says $29M) to build and serves about 1000 passengers a day. It works, but there must be equally effective yet less expensive ways to do it. In the case of the train stain, most people suspect there was financial mismanagement, or worse.

I drifted off a bit at the beginning when the Rheinmaidens were singing and teasing Alberich, which is the start of all the troubles. The prurient in me wonders whether the ladies were topless underneath their fishnet costume, but their voices were quite good. I couldn’t help but chuckle when the giants first came on: they reminded me of the blimpy wrestlers you see during Nets basketball games.

The singing and orchestra were much better than what I experienced in Seattle. Not that I remember things that well, but I have no major complaints about either the singing or the orchestra. Stephanie Bythe also sang the role of Fricka in this show, and she was good. If she could lose 50 pounds or so she could be a real star, in my opinion – Voight, anyone? Turns out Albrecht was sung by the same person in Seattle also, but he evidently was not as memorable. A lot has been made about Bryn Tarfel who was generally okay, but not great. As Wotan he did quite a bit of singing (which I don’t remember) and he faded quite a bit towards the end.

The orchestra sound was good. It was probably larger than usual – I counted six harps, although I didn’t notice they all play at the same time. The horns were unsteady at times, especially at the very end.

The major opera houses pride themselves on not using any electronic amplification for the voices, and indeed Freia talks about how her voice effectively reflects off the set. On the other hand, there seems to be no qualms about using the latest computerized technology for staging or using non-period costume. Not that I have problems with either, but to me these practices are a bit contrived. Between not hearing and hearing it with acoustics aid (e.g., in the case of Kiri Te Kawana recently) I would definitely opt for the latter. I have come to the conclusion that few auditoria and singers are so good that everyone can hear everything sitting anywhere. And that, I am sad to say, includes Carnegie Hall.

By now I have heard these operas enough times that I can catch many of the leitmotifs, which makes it more enjoyable. Using a typical opera ticket cost, it costs around $500 to watch a ring cycle. I can see the expenses rack up if one wants to really get to know the cycle. The Program Notes did point out something interesting which came about because Wagner wrote the pieces in reverse order. By the time Das Rheingold was written, his style had changed substantially. That would explain why there are more standalone melodies in his “later” ring operas (e.g., Die Walkure) and that there are none in Das Rheingold. I am glad even music critics think there are no melodies to this opera.

Overall, I enjoyed it. I think I will go ahead and buy tickets to Siegfried.

Chung Shu drove to my house and I drove up to New York City. We had noodles at Ollie’s.

The Elberoth Duo – Dongmyung Ahn, baroque violin; Yi-heng Yang, harpsichord. March 28, 2011.

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Central Park West, New York City

“Three Bach Sonatas for violin and harpsichord”
Sonata II in A major, BWV 1015 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Andante un poco

Sonata I in B minor, BWV 1014

Sonata VI in G major, BWV 1019

I have known Yi-heng since she was born – her parents and we have known each other since our college days. She now holds a Doctor’s degree from Julliard and lives in Manchester, England with her double bassist husband Max. I also met Dee a couple of summers back when I was helping out at the summer music camp at our church.

The venue is a largish church located at corner of Central Park West and 65th. It puts out these Vespers as part of its ministry. I am told it can seat 700 people, there weren’t nearly as many people at tonight’s concert.

Period instruments were used in the performance. I guess there are no “modern” harpsichords anymore. However, both instruments are quite new. The harpsichord looked spotless, nary a scratch, with a shiny polish. The violin, according to Yi-heng, was made by a violin-maker from Texas. The bow is lighter, wound tightly, it seems, and the wood has a concave shape to it. The neck is supposed shorter. Since there is no chin rest, the violin has to be held up by the left hand, which makes position changes a bit more difficult. It sounds pretty much the same, except perhaps with a bit more of a bounce and smoother tone.

My prior encounters with a harpsichord were in an orchestral setting where they were mainly used to play the continuo part. I am a bit surprised at how soft it sounds even up close, and I wonder if they have dampers as the sound was a bit muddled. The fast passages came across as a big “glob” of sound, which is unfortunate as on a piano it would probably be brilliant. Perhaps better understanding come with a bit more training.

Stradivari, who died in 1733, was Bach’s contemporary. So an unaltered Stradivarius would be a legitimate period instrument. However, I suspect anyone who gets hold of one will immediately lengthen the neck, put in a chin rest, and have it otherwise restored so it can be auctioned off for a few million dollars! There must be some irony here.

The concert lasted about 45 minutes, although people hung around for quite a while afterwards. I took the train up and got a ride from Chung Shu.