Thursday, July 28, 2011

Linden Quartet. 7/26/2011.

Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University, Row 2, Balcony Center Left.

Quartet members: Sarah McElravy, violin; Catherine Cosbey, violin; Eric Wong, viola; Felix Umansky, cello.

String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat Major, K. 428 Wolfgang Amadeua Mozart
String Quartet in F Major (1903) Maurice Ravel
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1 (1842) Robert Schumann

Because of our travel schedule, this last one was the only concert we could make out of the four Princeton put out this summer. As usual, David and Vivien got the free tickets for us, and we had dinner at Panera Bread, which continues to do a brisk business. It had been quite hot the past couple of weeks, but it cooled down a bit today, so it was a pleasant evening. Our one concern was that we would have to leave the house at 8:30 am the following day to catch a flight to Quebec, so didn’t want to get home too late.

During dinner Vivien showed us a picture taken in October, 2005, the first time we went to a Princeton concert together. The four of us had dinner at Alchemist and Barrister. I looked younger, and heavier, then (so did the others), and had considerably more black in my already-thinning hair.

The quartet is currently in residence as the Graduate Quartet at Yale. The members all appear to be quite young (early 30s?).

Before they began the program, Cosbey (second violin) explained a bit about the Mozart quartet being one of the six “Haydn Quartets” he wrote in honor of his mentor. Knowing that, it was relatively easy to see how the quartet relates to Haydn’s style. The opening line is very chromatic (instead of tonal) in that 9 of the 12 notes are used in the first phrase (which I counted to be 10 notes long). The theme was repeated several times, and I eventually could come to terms with its being Mozartian. In general it is a delightful piece of music, easy on the ears and the mind, and calls for relatively equal partnership among the instruments, which is rare for quartets in my experience, and even rarer for Mozart. The four movements are Allegro no troppo, Andante con moto, Menuetto & Trio, and Allegro vivicae.

My first reactions were: (1) great balance among the instruments, the viola’s sound is unusually clear; (2) why did they have to take all the repeats (David and I argued a bit whether this was true), making the piece about 40 minutes long; (3) the group as a whole sounded surprising weak, especially given how close we were to the stage; and (4) they oftentimes had to tune their instruments between movements, and would take a long time to do so.

Before the Ravel piece, McElravy (first violin) did the introductory notes. Ravel went to the Paris Conservatory and wrote this piece as his exit composition. His teacher Gabriel Faure didn’t like it and had rather harsh words about it; his fellow student, Debussy, however, said it was great and said Ravel shouldn’t even try to change one note. While Faure still has compositions in the repertoire of today’s musicians (I especially like The Requiem), he is nowhere as well-known as Ravel or Debussy. The four movements are Moderato tres doux, Assez vif-Tres rythme, Tres lent, and Vif et agite.

This is an interesting piece, with lots of doubling between a high and low instrument (first violin and viola, for instance), and lots of use of the pizzicato, with the second movement comprising of nearly all pizzicato by the players. The last movement, a kind of free-for-all frenzy, was both enjoyable and exhilarating.

It was about 9:10 pm when we got to the intermission. Now it was Wong’s turn (he is the violist) to describe Schumann’s work. Schumann had this habit of concentrating on one particular type of music (songs, chamber music, e.g.) for several years. He for instance wrote 160+ songs within a couple of years after marrying Clara. This piece was written during his “chamber music” phase.

After the first movement, the violist walked out. We were wondering why: was he upset? Did he break a string? It turns out he had a nose bleed and had to take care of it. The cellist got to kill a bit of time by cracking a couple of rather funny jokes. Wong eventually returned and the quartet completed the program. It was generally quite well-played, but unfortunately more memorable for the break. I guess they can have instruments on stand-by, but not other musicians.

The concert could have gone much better, but with the long breaks between movements, the nose bleed, and this kid and her mother sitting behind us who didn’t whisper as softly as they thought, the overall experience was just so-so. I guess one can only overlook so much during a live performance, and eventually these small things add up to a major negative.

If this group gets the right amount of tutoring, I am sure they can do very well. They still deserved the hearty applause they got, even with all my criticisms. It was close to 10:30 pm when the concert concluded, so we got home quite late. (I am typing this the following day, in Canada.) After we got settled and prepared for our trip, I got about 4 hours sleep last night.

Friday, July 01, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Bramwell Tovey, conductor; Kirill Gerstein, piano. June 29, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat OO06, $27.50).

Waltz from Masquerade (1941) by Khachaturian (1903-78).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (1874-75; rev. 1889) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).
Valse de concert No. 2 in F major, Op. 51 (1894) by Glazunov (1865-1936).
Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor (1875) by Borodin (1833-87).

This was one of the Summertime Classics concerts that NY Philharmonic organizes after the end of each concert season. The Yangs had tickets for it, and I decided to join them since Anne was in Washington DC. (Turns out Anne decided to come home early, but she got a ride from Ellie from Metropark, so it all worked out.) I got a discounted ticket from We drove up in Chung Shu’s car, and had a quick dinner at Ollie’s.

This is an all-Russian concert, with a Russian-born pianist. Tovey is the music director of the Vancouver Philharmonic and (as far as I know) has been conducting these Summertime Classics concerts for several years. While I am curious as to why/how he gets a long-term commitment from the organization, I certainly am okay with it. I have seen him a couple of times, and he always talks a bit about the music before it is played; his remarks were pedagogical and funny.

The Waltz by Khachaturian is pleasant to listen to, and as with most waltzes, repeats its themes quite a few times. It was last played by the NY Philharmonic in 1973.

I am very familiar with Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto (as most music listeners are, for sure). Actually I used to be able to hum the entire piece (the melodies, such as they were). I realized to my amazement somewhere in the middle of the performance that I didn’t recall hearing it live ever. It was performed last year at NY Phil by Lang Lang (New Year’s Eve concert).

This concert illustrates why there is a huge difference between listening to a CD and to a live concert. While I knew this is a virtuoso piece from the recording, the live performance gave me a much better idea how technically challenging the music is, and worrying about the soloist stumbling leaves one sitting on the edge of the seat. Most CDs are engineered so extensively that the balance is always perfect; with a live performance, the soloist and orchestra adjust to each other constantly. Also, in the case of this concerto, the music sounded much more discordant than what you hear on a recording.

It was a well-played performance. While Gerstein was born in Russia, he spent a lot of time in the USA, got his education at Boston’s Berklee School and New York’s Manhattan School of Music. He is now an American citizen and holds a teaching position in Germany. I enjoyed especially his dynamic range and phrasing, which made for very interesting listening.

After the intermission, Tovey jokingly told the audience had Glazunov called the Waltz by any other name than the unimaginative “No. 2” it would have been much more popular. I am not sure if had been called (say) “Waltz for Acrobats on the Steppes of Russia” that it would have attracted that many people as a headliner piece. Not that it is not delightful. The work was composed in 1894, and the Program Annotator evidently couldn’t find anything about its early performance history. And this is the first time the New York Philharmonic played the piece.

I probably knew Borodin was a chemist, but didn’t realize (or forgot) that music composition was his part-time job. Interesting. If you ask people what they know of Borodin, the vast majority will probably say he is a composer. Prince Igor is an opera he worked on for many years, but didn’t finish (he died suddenly). The opera was completed eventually by various composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, who made quite a few changes even to parts Borodin wrote. Supposedly these dances were Borodin originals, suffering only minor editing by the subsequent composers. The tune “Strangers in Paradise” is from these dances, and it got repeated several times. It is a lovely tune, played lovelily (?) by the orchestra. I didn’t realize the pace was so fast, though.

As an encore, we heard a movement from The Nutcracker Suite.

A very pleasant way to start the summer, even though weather-wise it feels like the middle of summer already. I wonder why the concert is all-Russian. Last year’s Summertime Classic concert I attended was all-Russian also. The New York Times reviewer is very positive on the performance also. He pointed out there was only one rehearsal before the first performance (we heard the second one), and had more to say about the soloist.