Saturday, May 28, 2011

American Ballet Theater – Adolphe Adam’s Giselle. May 27, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle (Seat E14, $75).

Conductor – Charles Barker; Giselle – Diana Vishneva, Count Albrecht – Marcelo Gomes, Hilarian – Gennadi Saveliev, Berthe – Susan Jones, Peasants (pas de Deux) – Maria Riccetto & Jared Matthews, Myrta – Veronika Part, Moyna – Isabella Boylston, Zulma – Yuriko Kajiya.

Story. Giselle falls in love with Count Albrecht, who disguises himself as the peasant Loys. Hilarion the huntsman is also in love with Giselle, and finds out the true identity of Loys. When Giselle finds out, and that Albrecht is also engaged to be married to someone else, she dies of a broken heart. She becomes a wili, a restless spirit who has died with her love unrequited, and is initiated into the wili sisterhood by the queen Myrta. These wilis roam the earth at night and kill any males they trap by forcing them to dance to their deaths. Hilarion is killed this way. When the wilis trap Albrecht, Giselle protects him by staying with him until the clock strikes four, at which point the wilis lose their power. Albrecht is thus rescued.

Today is the day before the Memorial Day Weekend, and all the traffic reports were indicating tie-ups at the various Hudson Crossings and in New York City. We decided to try to drive in and left a bit before 5 pm (the performance was to start at 7:30 pm), and got to the parking garage at around 6 pm, the traffic tie-ups we encountered were minimal to non-existent. We ate at Sushi A-Go-Go. We hadn’t been there for a while, the prices didn’t seem to be much higher than we remembered them.

The ballet certainly is very well-known, and Anne claims many tunes should be quite familiar. That turns out not be the case. However, some tunes were used so many times that by the end of the ballet I wasn’t so sure anymore. Overall the music is disappointing; it has a very saccharine feel to it, sounding like what you would expect in a ballroom with light waltzes playing in the background. The orchestra’s lack of dynamic range also contributed to this assessment.

Those were a couple of the disappointments I felt after the first Act. The actual story contains more detail that the synopsis I wrote above, and the artists did more acting out the storyline than dancing a ballet performance. Yet things were confusing for me at many places. It is never made clear whether Giselle was engaged to Hilarion – which would raise a whole different set of issues. There were a couple of dances performed by Giselle that seemed quite difficult, and she did them well. The costume designer did a great job, the colors just looked great and well balanced. Giselle’s death scene somehow reminds me of Lucia’s mad scene in Lucia de Lammermoor. She dropped to the ground at least four times before she died; even though I didn’t want her to die, I still couldn’t but wish “die already.”

I was ready to conclude that what we have is a light-weight ballet, light-weight music, light-weight orchestra, and a light-weight cast, which probably is a good combination for a light-weight viewer (like myself.) And as such it was an enjoyable Act I.

The second Act, however, saw a lot more serious ballet. We saw Veronika Part as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake a few years ago, and she was the headliner for this performance. She played the role of Myrta in this ballet and had a relatively limited role. In any case, there were a few more virtuoso performances by the principals, and the choreography was more traditional.

Overall, the ballet is okay, but didn’t quite live up to my perception of its reputation. It is, afterall, the “oldest continually-performed ballet,” premiering in Paris in June, 1841.

One other note, I called this piece “Adam’s Giselle,” as in “music by Adophe Adam.” I am not sure this is the proper attribution as one can argue many others played important roles in bringing the work together.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Dmitri Jurowski, conductor; Sol Gabetta, cello. May 14, 2011.

Hong Kong Cultural Center Concert Hall, Balcony (Seat I104, HK$320).

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (1896) by Dvorak (1841-1904).
Symphony No. 15 in A, Op. 141 (1971) by Shostakovich (1906-1975).

I was walking around in Causeway Bay yesterday and decided to see if there was anything interesting going on in the Classical music scene. So I went into Tom Lee and found this brochure on “Dvorak’s Cello Concerto.” I didn’t know the cellist, but the name “Jurowski” caught my attention. I see the name in Avery Fisher Hall a lot, but had never heard a concert by him, so I decided to go with it. After I bought the ticket, I realized that it was Vladimir whose name is all over town (New York City in this case) instead of Dmitri. Subsequent “research” (i.e., google search) led to the realization that Vladimir and Dmitri are brothers, and that their father Mikhail was also a conductor. (Thus the full name of Dmitri Mikhailovich Jurowski.) Vladimir is seven years older (born 1972) and, according to Wikipedia, took Dmitri to Germany in 1990. There is little mention of Vladimir in the writeup in today’s program, sibling rivalry, or too much of a shadow to live under, perhaps?

I thought the last time I heard the Dvorak concerto was the formidable combination of Yo-yo Ma, Gustavo Dudamel, and the Vienna Philharmonic. Turns out that wasn't the case (it was a Schumann concerto), and I actually couldn’t find any blog entry on this concerto. Nonetheless I was quite familiar with it, perhaps due to the many singable melodies in the piece. With that in mind, my imagination kind of dictated how a performance of this concerto should sound, and naturally tonight’s performance didn’t live close to that perception.

The concerto consists of three movements and lasts about 40 minutes. Brahms, who was one of Dvorak’s first admirers, famously said he would have written one had he known such great composition could be written. Indeed it is a beautiful work, if a bit on the simple side.

The first movement (Allegro) basically consisted of two themes with intervening development. It actually sounded very good, the cello coming across beautifully. The second movement (Adagio ma non troppo) was the most complex of the three movements, most of the time the lines were clean, but the timpani sounded muddled at times. The last movement (Finale: Allegro moderato) dragged on a bit, and the concertmaster had a solo passage that wasn’t particularly well-done. Dvorak rewrote the ending to reflect the sadness of mourning his sister’s death.

While the performance was generally good, and the cellist showed quite a bit of brilliance, there was something missing. One notable issue was the lack of coordination between the cellist and the orchestra. The latter seemed to be more of an accompaniment than an equal partner. The give and take between the soloist and the orchestra wasn’t consistent. Nonetheless, this is Dvorak, and any reasonable performance would be enjoyable.

Gabetta played an encore whose name I didn’t get. It was not so much a virtuoso piece (there were enough double stops and harmonics) as it was to showcase what sounds one could make with the cello. At some point she sang along (in harmony) with the playing. Interesting, but she should keep her regular job. The piece had potential: I am sure I would appreciate it more if I get to listen to it again.

Argentine-born Gabetta is quite young, but has been on the scene since 2004. She plays the "rare and precious" cello by G. B. Guadagnini from 1759. (I am writing this down for the record.)

The Program Notes describes this concert as one of endings. Dvorak’s was his last concerto, and Shostakovich’s was his last symphony. Shostakovich suffered from various diseases and indeed had a second heart attack soon after completing this, his last symphony. The symphony was also about 40 minutes long. However, the symphony wasn’t particular sad or macabre.

This symphony is what I would call a percussionist’s dream, listed in the instrumentation are: timpani, celesta, xylophone, triangle, glockenspiel, vibraphone, snare drum, castanets, woodblocks, and tam-tam. I think they missed the cymbals. And they had about five percussionist in addition to the timpani player.

The program notes says the London premiere of the piece drew laughter from the audience due to its frequent and often bizarre musical quotations. I would call them interesting, but not funny or bizarre. The first movement (Allegretto) had five references to the William Tell Overture, which Shostakovich claimed to be his first musical memory. There was quite a bit of violin solo also, and I have to say the concertmaster redeemed himself (he is actually the first associate concertmaster, there being no concertmaster listed in the roster). He figured prominently in this work, and generally did very well. Mention must also be made of the trombone, the playing was simply exquisite. The second movement (Adagio) is described as the emotional center of the symphony, and contained references to the 11th and 14th symphonies. Well, I do not know those two symphonies. It ended with a xylophone solo. The bassoons started the third movement (Allegretto) without pause, and it was rather short. The last movement (Adagio) began with a 3-note Wagner Ring Leitmotif which I recognized (or it is so simple that I am sure it was in the Ring) but didn’t know was called “fate.” At this point the orchestra seemed to have lost some of the energy of the earlier movements. You could anticipate the ending when the percussionists all started to move into position. Again I didn’t know the ending passage which was derived from the fourth symphony; but it was interesting that it was withheld by Shostakovich for 25 or so years due to its lack of political correctness.

The overall piece sounded much simpler than I expected, and Shostakovich – at least in this symphony – dished out solo lines to nearly all of the sections. Dmitri Jurowski was quite economical in his movements, but managed to elicit a good performance, by and large, from the players. His brother’s place in the musical scene seems secure, I wonder how it would turn out for him.

As to the orchestra, I am impressed with how they make Shostakovich look easy. Perhaps de Waart really has done something with the group. I hope whoever follows him will be equally effective.

Oh, there is none of this business of the concertmaster (and sometimes section leaders) excusing himself when there is a soloist. And it worked well.

I am glad I went. By the time I got back to Taipo, it was 11 pm.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The House of Dancing Water. May 9, 2011.

City of Dreams Dancing Water Theater, Macau, Section 300, Seat H311 (HK$680).

This is not a concert review.

Ling suggested this show as part of our short side-trip to Macau. Advertisements say the production costs $2B Hong Kong Dollars (about US$250M), so my curiosity is certainly piqued. The show is created and directed by Franco Dragone.

I came away thinking this is nothing more than an acrobat show over a large water tank with special audiovisual effects, and not the best acrobatic show at that. As to the $250M, it must be a bit like how the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring staging costs $15M: something not quite living up to the expectations that come with such huge budgets. And in this case I hope it includes the apparently purpose-built theater which I estimate seats a couple of thousand people (2000 seats per some web pages), otherwise someone got ripped off.

When you sit through the show, you know there is a story they are trying to tell. Indeed their official webpage does provide a plot. I didn’t read it before the show, and even after watching it I must say nothing remotely like what is described in the plot happens. You know there are good people and bad people, and that a hero is trying to reach a heroine, but you have no idea why he eventually succeeds. I can certainly tolerate a lot of missing lines and poetic license, but the actually enacted story is simply beyond redemption (well, a little strong, but not entirely unfair). I can’t avoid comparing this with a ballet which manages to tell a coherent story, usually.

The staging is quite impressive, though. They manage to move solid platforms onto the water surface very quickly, and on top of that put in many fountains. And the audio-visual effects are quite impressive. There are a lot of aerial activities with all kinds of wiring harnesses. I kept worrying things would get tangled up and to their credit that never happened. And there are some very high dives (maybe from over 100 feet) that are quite spectacular. The motorcycle show is also quite impressive, six of them zipping around a very small stage doing coordinated jumps. I image there is a lot of computer controls and those seem to work very well. Also, there must be a lot of physical demands on the athletes.

However, the “precision” aspects are not quite there. For instance, there is this cage with 20 or so athletes/dancers doing choreographed movements, but they all seem to be doing their own things. (Compare with ballet or synchronized swimming.) Now if I am hanging on someone’s arm while dangling 50 or so feet in the air, precision is perhaps not the first thing I concentrate on. But if they are not good enough to do that, they shouldn’t try.

A great disappointing is the music. It probably is original, but it is quite boring. In my view they should spend some funds commissioning someone to compose (say) musical-like music. What we have is an artificial blend of western- and oriental-style music. As in a Cirque de Soleil show, the music is a combination of live and taped. At curtain call the four musicians came out to take a bow.

The show uses a contortionist who can bend his limbs in strange ways and fit into small spaces. I usually getting a laugh by making fun of people that way somehow degrading, and feel the same way here. Of course that may be one way for the gentleman to make a decent living.

My overall opinion is this would be a good show if it doesn’t pretend to be more than its creators are capable of making it to be. In that sense it has many parallels with a CdS show, trying to go beyond a traditional circus or acrobat show, but not quite making it.

So, if you find yourself in Macau and really can’t think of anything to do, this show is for you.

Metropolitan Opera – Wagner’s Die Walkure. May 5, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle Seat I218 ($27.50).

Story. See previous blog.

Conductor – Derrick Inouye; Siegmund – Jonas Kaufmann, Sieglinde – Eva-Marie Westbroek, Hunding – Hans-Peter Konig, Wotan – Bryn Terfel, Brunnhilde – Deborah Voight, Fricka – Stephanie Blythe.

The Yangs couldn’t make this opera because of the birth of their granddaughter (good excuse), and they gave their tickets to CM and his daughter Faith. Because of President Obama’s plans to be in New York City, we were a bit worried about traffic so we left at around 3:45 pm for the 6:30 concert. I really wanted to drive in and park at Lincoln Center because the opera was going to end late at around 11:45 pm. Turned out there wasn’t really that much traffic, so we got to Lincoln Center at about 5 pm, and had enough time for me to buy tickets for a couple of upcoming ABT performances, and a quick dinner at Ollie’s.

In the Playbill there is an insert saying James Levine is ill, and Derrick Inouye will be conducting. I tend to believe these announcements, but recall a conversation with Sharon at another opera where they had a substitute for Gergiev where she insisted they put out these big names to attract patrons while planning to make the substitutes all along. If this happens again I will begin to adopt Sharon’s view.

The same 24x3 plank arrangement was used for the second of the Ring operas. Among the different scenes were: forest, Hunding’s house, rocks, mountain, and horses. Given where we sat (way up in the Family Circle section), the lighting gave a 3-dimensional effect to the flat surfaces. They had this painted-on feel to them; one could tell they were projections because of the shadows cast when people walked in front of them – most of the time they hid it well with spot lights on the people. Anne, who saw this set for the first time, was quite impressed. In fact the arrangements were simpler than those in Das Rheingold, but I am still somewhat impressed with what they managed to do with it. Still not worth the $15M. Even though the scenes still evoked Cirque de Soleil, they were not nearly as overt. No marching people, much less use of wires to suspend actors, and generally not as much rhythmic movement.

This is the third time I saw this particular opera. The first was about three years back, at the Met, with Lorin Maazel conducting, and Deborah Voight singing the role of Sieglinde (she is doing Brunnhilde this season). The second was part of the Seattle Opera Ring Cycle we went to a couple of years ago. I don’t remember it very well, but I think the Maazel performance was the best one. Perhaps other factors contributed to how I feel: it was the first Ring opera we saw, we were seated in a box which had a clear view of the conductor and how he engaged with the artists (even though they were partial view seats), the set was a “realistic” one so I didn’t have to spend mental energy conjuring things up, and I may simply go with the reputation of the conductor (can’t be, can it?).

In general the singers did very well. Teufel had a lot of lines and in general did quite well, although his voice was inexplicably weak in some places. Konig as Hundig sang strongly; Westbroek (Sieglinde) had a sweet voice and rendered an appropriately helpless Sieglinde caught up by fate. Kaufman, Voight, and Blythe all sang beautifully although Kaufman was weak compared to Konig.

The first act began a little slowly. There isn’t a lot of action in this act, so if one is not caught up in the story or the music then one has to struggle to stay away. I indeed found myself drifting off a couple of times. Things improved as the performance went on though, and some of the dialog in Acts 2 and 3 was very engaging.

One scene worth mentioning is the beginning of Act 3. The eight Valkyries were riding horses (inverted Vs formed by planks, naturally), and they slid down to the main stage. At first I couldn’t quite tell what they were doing, but via binoculars found out they were collecting skeletons into sacks; macabre, yet clever. And I also thought they would lead the dead warriors to Valhalla in human form. And the eight ladies could make a lot of noise. Many Wagner scholars (and some nuts) try to distinguish the characteristics of each of the eight Valkyries, I think it is a waste of time. (I may have remarked on this before, but I am inside a plane right now – CO99 Newark to Hong Kong – and don’t have access to my prior posts.)

Even though this is the third time I saw this opera, there were still things I didn’t know until now. Brunnhilde is actually the daughter of Wotan and Erda, and Hundig is the son of Albrecht the Nibelung. Just in this opera Wotan has three wives (third one being the twins’ mother), I wonder if he had others in the other three operas. I also didn’t know Brunnhilde explicitly told Sieglinde she would try to save Siegmund despite Wotan’s explicit instructions to the contrary (that would explain Wotan’s wrath). There is also a major inconsistency: Brunnhilde said another who saw her face would die, but that evidently didn’t apply to Sieglinde. The Program Notes also says this story happens on earth: not quite true as I assume the start of Act 3 took place in Valhalla. Interestingly I don’t remember being puzzled by references to Das Rheingold when I saw Die Walkure for the first time, I now have more questions about the consistency of the story. Also, what happened to Siegmund after he was killed, was he brought to Valhalla?

It also occurred to me one reason I am finding new things about the opera is that there were invariably periods I dozed off during a performance (it is five hours long, after all) so some details would elude me. Of course, being forgetful could also explain some (or most) of it.

One nice surprise was our seats were quite decent, given how inexpensive they were. The acoustics was good – understandable since we could practically touch the ceiling, and with a good pair of binoculars we could see quite a bit of details.

On our way back we got to talk about this a bit. Faith was particularly enthusiastic, wondering how these singers managed to sing for so long. She is taking voice lessons and is considering a major in voice in college. We were surprised how busy traffic was close to midnight, perhaps residual effects from the Presidential visit. We got home before 1 am, driving in and parking at Lincoln Center worked out for us.