Monday, June 13, 2011

American Ballet Theater – Shostakovich’s Bright Stream. June 11, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center – Balcony (Seat F101, $43).

Conductor – Charles Barker; Zina – Veronika Part, Pyotr – Alexandre Hammoudi, Ballerina – Stella Abrera, Ballet Dancer – Cory Stearns, Dacha Man – Victor Barbee, Dacha Woman – Martine van Hamel, Galya the school girl – Gemma Bond, Milkmaid – Misty Copeland, Gavrilych inspector of quality – Roman Zhurbin.

Story. Zina and Pyotr are a married couple living on the Russian collective farm Bright Stream. A ballet troupe comes into town, and Zina discovers she and the ballerina were classmates at ballet school. Pyotr is taken with the ballerina. Meanwhile, an older Dacha couple come by and the man likes Zina while the woman likes the male ballet dancer. Zina and the ballet dancers decide to play a hoax; so we have Zina disguised as the ballerina to trick Pyotr; the ballerina as the ballet dancer to trick the Dacha woman; and the ballet dancer as Zina to trick the Dacha man. They all fall for the disguises. The Dacha man actually goes so far as to have a duel with the disguised ballerina. Everything eventually gets sorted out.

Early this afternoon Anne suggested that we go to Nyack to visit The Hopper House. We have been interested in this artist ever since our son gave us a print of his (Lighthouse at Portland Head) after we moved to our current house with a view of the Great Beds Lighthouse. We saw a couple of his paintings at the Chicago Art Institute, including The Nighthawks, and greatly enjoyed them. The exhibit concentrates on Hopper’s early years. While interesting, it contains only a few of his early works, many on loan from other museums (several from the Whitney in New York). The docents were quite friendly and helpful, and we did learn a few things about Hopper, including how his painting style changed over the years. The $15 admission fee is a bit on the high side, though.

We got done around 4 pm, and decided to head down to the City to see if we could buy discounted tickets for the evening’s ABT performance. Even though there were many seats available, half price tickets were not on offer. We got the cheap seats in the balcony. We did find off-street parking that cost us only $6 at the meter. Between a crafts fair at Lincoln Plaza and dinner at China Fun, it was not a long wait before the performance began at 8 pm.

Indeed the ballet was not well-attended. I estimate over half of the balcony and family circle seats were not taken. Our seats had great acoustics, but I would have preferred to be closer to the stage. This matters less with operas as I go mostly for the singing (and many opera singers don’t act that well), whereas with ballets it is important to see the dancers’ movements and expressions.

The ballet has an interesting history. Shostakovich was criticized severely by the Russian censors since this work supposedly reflects the idyllic peasant life in a bad light. It was revived by Alexei Ratmansky and the Bolshoi Ballet in 2003 (it was premiered in 1935), and the ABT first performed it in January, 2011, at the JFK Center in Washington, DC.

The story (as summarized in the synopsis) is quite complicated (perhaps convoluted), but is actually quite easy to follow. The “story” I wrote above skips several aspects, including: inspector of quality, dog, milkmaid, tractor driver, the accordion player, and the grim reaper. There is considerable humor in not naming many of the characters and calling them by interesting names such as “Anxious-to-Be-Younger-Than-She-Is Dacha Dweller”. The fact that Zina (Veronika Part) and the ballerina (Stella Abrera) are quite different in height helps. I did get confused sometimes by Pyotr (Alexandre Hammoudi) and the ballet dance (Gennadi Saveliev) since they are closer in stature; and their costumes are only slightly different.

I generally do not appreciate comedies as much as, say, tragedies. However, I did find this ballet enjoyable. Even though there was no suspense to the story, and one is pretty sure everything would turn out okay at the end, I still found the story fascinating as it unfolded. The Dacha-dwelling couple put out an especially funny performance. I do wish they would get more serious dancing roles as I am sure they are capable. Hammoudi is probably an up-and-coming star to be given this major role. During the pas de deux with Part he was a bit unsteady at times; nonetheless he generally did a good job. The two ballet dancers (Abrera and Stearns) have to dance as the opposite sex during Act II, generally they mimic the other sex pretty well. I am quite impressed with Stearns’s ability to stand and dance on his tiptoe (I guess the technical term would be "on point") quite well. In general, however, the lady dancer (Abrera) did a more convincing job.

Shostakovich’s music is uncharacteristically simple to follow – perhaps the storyline of the ballet helps to guide the listener. The melodies are very tonal, and close to being singable. The entire work didn’t feel nearly as heavy-duty as some of his other work (even compared to his Symphony No. 1 which I heard a couple of days before.) I have not heard any of his operas, yet I am sure his operas are not quite that easy to follow (I don’t even know if he wrote any.) In the pas de deux of Act II, the cello got quite a work out, and it was nicely done.

It was an enjoyable day overall. I am glad we got to see this ballet. I do hope it will remain in the ABT repertoire for a while despite the disappointing attendance. The New York Times Review is for another set of dancers, and contains a lot of interesting background information, including the fact that Ratmansky (the choreographer of this production) is Artist in Residence at ABT; of course I would know that if I had read the program more carefully.

New York Philharmonic – David Robertson, conductor; Deborah Voight, soprano. June 9, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat M115, $65).

Symphony No. 1, Op. 10 (1924-25) by Shostakovich (1906-75).
The Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Poem after Arnold Bocklin, Op. 29 (1909) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).
Erwartung (Expectation), Monodrama in One Act, Op. 17 (1909) by Schoenberg.

This is an interesting concert, with all three pieces written in the early 20th century. We had tickets for a concert the following week but exchanged them because of an upcoming trip. It started out as a very hot day (it got as high as 100F), but a cold front came through while we were having dinner at Empire Szechuan, and the walk to the parking garage afterwards was delightful.

Shostakovich wrote this symphony when he was 19, as part of his graduation assignment from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and as such a remarkable piece of work. It sounded much more complex than, say, comparable work of Schubert at this age. It was nonetheless “easy listening” although I am not sure there is a clear message to the music. Shostakovich’s later music tends to be somber and a bit on the dark side (at least most of what I have heard, notable exception being the ballet Bright Stream I saw a couple of days later.) Towards the end the timpani played these notes that are close together in range (maybe as little as a semitone apart); I wonder if that adjustment is done in real time, or were they tuned so close to each other.

The Program Notes mentions Shostakovich referring to this work as “Symphony Grotesque” with the scherzo suggesting skipping dancers perilously out of balance. The other remark says the work is tonal, in F, but hovering between F major or F minor. I frankly didn’t catch either. The four movements are Allegretto, Allegro, Lento (attacca) and Allegro molto.

We are seated in Row M. I am sure we have seated closer to the stage before, but today the music sounded very loud. I can imagine how ear-piercing it must be for someone on stage, especially for those who are close to the percussion and brass sections.

The Isle of the Dead is a painting done by Arnold Bocklin, who painted five versions.
Rachmaninoff was fascinated with the black and white reproduction of this work, but was disappointed by the color of the actual painting. He wrote the music before this, evidently. The piece is about 21 minutes long, starting with a 5/4 tempo for about 10 minutes before moving into 3/4 tempo. It got quite loud after another 5 or so minutes, and eventually got back to the original 5/4 tempo. That I got, but I missed the funeral chant at Dies Irae at the end of the piece.

The Program Notes quotes Rachmaninoff as saying music comes to him in one flash: “and they come: all the voices at once. Not a bit here, a bit there. All. The whole grows.”

There is speculation that Schoenberg wrote Erwartung possibly with the influence of what happened the previous year: his wife Mathilde had an affair with the painter Richard Gerstl. The story talks about a woman wandering in the forest looking for her lover, with different emotions running through her head, and eventually stumbles his murdered corpse. The original libretto implied that the woman murdered her lover, but that was edited out by Schoenberg.

The Program Notes thinks the composition is such that the audience, watching this emotional train-wreck without feeling that it is based in reality, will feel removed and turned into voyeurs. I had trouble following the words. One contributor is that I was so close to the stage that I had to snap my head up and down to read the surtitles and watch the artists. Another is that the words are difficult to fully digest. You get the meaning, but not necessarily the mood. Perhaps if I had studied the text a bit more before hand, it would have helped. For me it just turned out to be puzzling.

I have seen Deborah Voight a few times before (Helen of Egypt and a couple of Ring Operas, for example). Her singing is fine, but not what I would call refined. It is the same here. For some reason there seems to be only one volume setting: loud. I know she can definitely do soft. It is not like she is overwhelmed by the volume of the orchestra (although there were instances of that.) There were passages where she basically sang against one instrument and her voice was clearly the much stronger instrument (the violin, especially.) Half an hour of intensive singing is quite impressive, though.

The New York Times Review has an in-depth critique of Voight’s performance. The reviewer obviously in enamored with David Robertson, calling him “great” and “brilliant.” Well, at least he stopped short of saying that he walks on water.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

American Ballet Theater – Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias. June 3, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle (Seat A17, $66).

Conductor – Ormsby Wilkins; Roberto Bolle – Armand Duval, Mary Mills Thomas – Nanina, Clinton Luckett – The Duke, Olympia – Hee Seo, Julie Kent – Marguerite Gautier, Manon Lescaut – Gillian Murphy, Des Grieux – David Hallberg; Pianists – Koji Attwood (Acts I & II), Nimrod Peeffer (Prologue & Act II), Emily Wong (Act III).

Story. This is basically another retelling of the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils, made famous by the Opera La Traviata. The protagonists are named Marguerite and Armand (Verdi renamed them Violetta and Alfredo), and the story is told as Armand’s reminiscene after Marguerite’s death. In the ballet she dies alone and her possessions sold off at auction. The ballet ends with Armand closing the dairy of Marguerite, which was handed to him by her maid Nanina. Intertwined in the plot is another ballet based on Manon Lescaut whose life parallels that of Marguerite.

By my nomenclature which associates a ballet with the composer of music, this should be titled “Chopin’s Lady of the Camellias” as all the music is composed by Chopin. However, Chopin clearly didn’t have this ballet in mind when he wrote his various piano pieces that ended up being used to accompany this ballet. Indeed Dumas wrote the novel in 1848, a year before Chopin’s death. John Neumeier first choreographed this in 1978, and the Programs Notes also attributes to him the lighting design. One would think another choreographer and lighting designer can come along and redo these things, but leave the story and music basically intact. Would the ballet still be considered Neumeier’s? If you go to and search for the music, you will find a 2007 DGG DVD entitled “Chopin – Die Kameliendame” which is how I would have called it. Strange genre, this ballet stuff.

I find the juxtaposition of Manon’s story quite confusing at times. That they tend to dress in different colors help, and I am glad Kent (Marguerite) and Murphy (Manon) look very different. If you simply want to enjoy the ballet dancers and Chopin’s music, it would have worked quite well. But if you want to follow the story, such as it is, then you will have some difficulty: you have both reminiscene and a second story going on, sometimes at the same time.

While searching the web for more information, Anne came across an article that panned this ballet. Among the criticisms is the choreography. I am not even close to being knowledgeable on what constitutes good choreography, yet I did find the dancing mostly uninspired. Without the help of that article, I won’t know why I feel that way. Being the skeptic, naturally I am not sure that’s the (sole) reason. This does not mean there wasn’t great artistry or athleticism, only that it wasn’t as consistent as I would expect.

The music, a Chopin Piano Concerto and various other works (preludes, nocturnes), fits the mood of the ballet. After all, Chopin was a great composer of Romantic music. Act I was basically Chopin’s Piano Concerto (not sure which one); Act II consisted of piano solos (no orchestra); and Act III had a slow movement from another concerto and various other pieces. The pianists did okay, making this a good concert to go to for the music alone.

I wouldn’t call this a great ballet, but there are touching moments, and I certainly enjoyed the 2 hour 45 minute performance (with an hour’s worth of intermission). Between the opera and the ballet, however, I would definitely opt for the opera.

This is Julie Kent’s 25th year with ABT. Tonight probably was the first night of the season for her, and that would explain the extended ovation for her and the many many bouquets of flowers given to her. She tried to acknowledge her coworkers, but the night properly belonged to her. I do feel a bit bad for Gillian Murphy since she had an important role as Manon and danced equally well. She has only 15 years, though, so it will be a while for her.

It was 11 pm when we picked up our car from the 62nd St garage, and West End Ave was unexpectedly busy. Well, relatively busy, since we got home before midnight.

I did find an interesting review of the ballet from last year. The principal dancers were the same. The reviewer isn’t kind, but has considerable insight into what she feels is wrong. has a kinder review.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Leon Fleisher, piano; Jaime Laredo, violin. June 2, 2011.

92nd Street Y, Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, Orchestra (Seat R2, $57).

Sonatina for Violin and Piano in G minor, D. 408 (1816) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).
Sonatina for Violin and Piano in A minor, D. 385 (1816) by Schubert.
Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 (1720, arr. Brahms for Left Hand 1877-78) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).
“Sheep May Safely Graze” from Cantata No. 208 (1713, arr. Egon Petri 1944) by Bach.
Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, D. 574, “Grand Duo” (1817) by Schubert.

We saw Leon Fleisher for the first time in Toronto this past April when the program he was to perform had to be modified to accommodate his right hand, which was recovering from surgery. When we found out he was going to perform that program at the 92Y we decided to give it another try, hoping that the hand would be fully healed by then. Evidently that wasn’t to be, we got an announcement a couple of weeks ago saying that Jaime Laredo will now be on the program, performing three works by Schubert. Turns out I saw Laredo, also for the first time, last April, so this was going to be a reunion of some sorts.

Today (i.e., day of the concert, I am writing this a day later) turned out to be a nice day, so naturally traffic began to back up starting mid afternoon. Chung Shu drove in and it was basically quite uneventful, with most delays caused by cross-town traffic. Shirley couldn’t go, and Daphne joined us instead. We had enough time to wolf down a sandwich before the concert.

All of Schubert’s four violin sonatas were published posthumously. He wrote a series of three when he was 19 (Program Notes say 20), and the publisher decided to call them sonatinas so they could reach a wider audience. We heard two of them tonight. While they were not particularly difficult (I am thinking of buying the music to give them a try), they are certainly serious enough pieces to warrant the designation of “sonata.” The last piece we heard was written a year later. It was very different from the first two, Schubert having matured a lot during that time.

The first piece (Sonatina in G minor) contains four movements: Allegro giusto; Andante; Menuetto: Allegro vivace; and Allegro moderato. The second Sonatina’s movements are: Allegro moderato; Andante; Allegro; and Allegro. The Sonata in A major’s movements are: Allegro moderato; Scherzo:Presto; Andantino; and Allegro vivace.

The Program Notes contains good descriptions of the pieces, and I find the sudden changes in mood of the works especially fascinating. Indeed Schubert seemed to be able to, say, go from a major key to a minor key and back to the major key in one line without the music feeling abrupt or disjoint.

In general the musicians sounded good, although both were unsteady at times, and Laredo sometimes had an intonation problem. I am not into chamber music as a listener, and I find it difficult to determine what makes a great performance. I guess one tries to enjoy the individual artists as well as how they work together. In that regard things worked quite well.

The two piano pieces left quite a bit to be desired. Fleisher has a compelling story, staging a comeback in his 70s from an adversity that effectively sidelined him as a soloist for 40 or so years. If one didn’t know whom he was listening to, one would conclude the performance was sloppy, and some rather simple passages were botched. As far as I could tell, the Bach/Petri piece is relatively simple, yet sounded muddled in several places. In that sense Fleisher had a better performance in April in Toronto.

After Brahms arranged the Chaconne for piano left hand, he wrote to Clara Schumann saying how pleased he was with what he had done. The Program Notes quoted the sentence “Now if the greatest violinist is not around, then the best enjoyment is probably just to let it sound in one’s mind” is puzzling. One could ask the question, if Brahms was talking so effusively about the violin piece, why would he bother to transcribe it into a piano piece? The notes at the Toronto concert says Brahms thought it wouldn’t sound quite right if he transcribed it for both hands, thus the decision to do it for the left hand only. The violin and the piano are very different instruments, with the piano being a percussive one. It is difficult, if not impossible, for one instrument to mimic the other well. How one gets the effect of harmony and counterpoint on one instrument is different from how they are generated in the other. While the mimicry worked well in some passages, most of the time it left one scratching one's head. We listened to the violin piece on our return trip (I have it in my iPod) and the piece hangs together very well as written. I can understand writing a piano piece (one hand or two) based on the violin piece, but in this case a transcription didn’t work. There, I critiqued Brahms!

Having said that, there were a couple of places where the counterpoint worked very well.

I have mixed feelings about this performance. The audience was not particularly quiet or circumspect tonight, and someone sitting behind me started a discussion with his friend with “I know his story is compelling, but …” Also, Fleisher is in his 80s, and I assume the physical challenges of piano playing must be catching up with him (surprising little, if his left hand is any indication.) His story is admirable, but at some point one has to concede. Since Fleisher didn't explain why there was a program change, as he had done in Toronto, pity doesn't seem to be something he wants. Reality is harsh.

Turns out I also had one of Fleisher’s early Beethoven recordings (Emperor Concerto) on my iPod and played a bit of it during our drive. It was marvelous.

PBS Great Performance Broadcast – Carnegie Hall’s 120th Anniversary Concert. May 31, 2011.

South Amboy, NJ

Carnival Overture by Dvorak
Triple Concerto by Beethoven
--- Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Gil Shaham, violin; Emanuel Ax, piano
Songs by Duke Ellingthon
--- Solitude
--- Sophisticated Lady
--- It don’t Mean a Thing
--- Audra McDonald, soloist
An American in Paris by Gershwin

This program was performed by New York Philharmonic, with Alan Gilbert conducting, as part of the celebration of Carnegie Hall’s 120th Anniversary. The actual performance occurred on May 6, I believe. Anne and I saw the PBS broadcast in the comfort of our house.

I usually can’t sit through a TV program such as this, but certainly had no trouble doing so with this one. The program lasted less than 90 minutes, which is typically the amount of music one gets to hear in a concert. One good thing is that they didn’t show chairs being reshuffled in between pieces, nor was there an intermission.

To me, writing a review about it would be weird, and I don’t intend to do so. Not much, anyway. Even though it is a recording of a live performance, the balance of the soloists and the orchestra can be worked out such that every part sounds clear. You don’t get that great balance sitting in the auditorium. And the brass instruments sounded excellent.

One other remark I want to make is about Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. The three soloists certainly worked very well together, and Yo-Yo Ma seemed to enjoy himself tremendously. The New York Times Review pointed out Beethoven never wrote a cello concerto, and many cellists consider this work to be the closest approximation to one. Dicterow excused himself, but Brey didn’t; and Ma didn’t shake the principal cellist hand effusively (as he did at the concert late last year.)

NYT says McDonald sang four songs; I remember only three, and don’t recall falling asleep. Missing from my list is "On a Turquoise Cloud."

The NYT review is quite informative. The reviewer wanted more contemporary music for the program; I thought it was just right (well, I had to "suffer through" the Ellington pieces, jazz not being a favorite genre of mine). 120 years ago it was to mark the “birth” of the concert hall, and no one had any idea how its role in classical music would evolve, so there was really not much to guide the program. After more than a century, there is certainly a rich history to remember the place by. One could even argue perhaps they should perform the pieces that got played most often in the Hall’s history. Now that I mentioned it, I wonder what they are.

Tickets for the actual concert were quite expensive, and people were dressed more formally than usual for an evening concert in New York. I am not sure I am comfortable with that, even though I would have found the concert very enjoyable.