Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Jeremie Rhorer, conductor; Betrand Chamayou, piano. August 23, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra Right (Seat T112, $50).

Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major (“The Philosopher”) (1764) by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, K.414 (1782) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphony No. 29 in A major, K.201 (1774) by Mozart.

This is the third of the Mostly Mozart concerts that we went to. As I type this (Thursday evening) the threat of Hurricane Irene is all over the news, forecast to hit the area directly late Saturday. That would ruin any plans we might have harbored for the season finale, which we were somewhat inclined to do after these three rather enjoyable concerts.

The problem with three concerts in rapid succession is that they tend to blend into each other. Although we went only two days ago, I will have to work very hard to reconstruct how I felt about the concert (we shall see as I didn't jot down any notes.)

Haydn was a contemporary of Mozart’s. Of course Haydn was 20-some years Mozart’s senior, and Mozart died 18 years before Haydn did. The Program Notes indicates that they were rather good friends. I studied Mozart (as part of a German course) when in college, I thought the two didn’t meet that often, and that Haydn’s first reaction to Mozart was on the aloof side. Be that as it may, Haydn chose to stay with a steady employer while Mozart decided to free-lance. Haydn thus had to compose rather prolifically to generate enough fresh music for the Esterhazy court, including more than 80 symphonies. These symphonies tended to be rather short (this one is 16 minutes) and could work with a small orchestra.

This symphony is unusual in that it uses English horns rather than oboes, and uses a slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement for its four movements (the movements being Adagio, Presto, Menuetto and Finale: Presto). Together with the gravity of the music, the symphony is referred to as “Der Philosoph.”

Rhorer, a young French conductor, led a spirited and enjoyable rendition of the symphony. My only beef is, did he need to be so animated? While I don’t expect him to be as economical in his movements as a Toscanini or a Fiedler (admittedly I never saw these maestros in person), Rohrer reminded me of this 3 year kid who was a YouTube sensation.

The Mozart Piano Concerto is a familiar one, and Chamayou, another French musician, did it reasonably well. Certainly his approach was much more balanced than Juho Pohjonen, whom we heard last week. He and the conductor together put together an enjoyable performance. The movements are the traditional Allegro, Andante, and Rondeau: Allegretto. Chamayou also played Mozart’s cadenzas.

Another fact relayed by the Annotator (Paul Schiavo in this case) was that Mozart was an admirer of Johann Christian Bach, son of Johann Sebastian, and that Johann Christian had passed away recently. Some musicologists think Mozart quoted from JC Bach’s work, some are not so sure. Interesting, maybe. Germane? Not so sure.

Mozart wrote his 29th Symphony when he was barely 18, while he was still employed in the court of the prince-archbishop of Salzburg. As in the case of Haydn’s symphony, Mozart had a small orchestra of around 20 musicians. He certainly did wonders with such a small ensemble. The symphony is well-known for the descending octaves in the first and last movements. It seems everything clicked for this reading by the orchestra. Only complaint was maybe it was a bit rushed, so the orchestra didn't sound as crisp as it could. The movements are Allegro moderato, Andante, Menuetto, and Allegro con spirit.

I guess my worry at the beginning of this blog is correct: I don’t remember much about the concert, except in very general terms. Enjoyable, but not memorable.

We managed to find off-street parking after circling the block a few times. Also, Atrium just sent out an email about discounts for tomorrow’s concert (I was talking about the Saturday one earlier). Perhaps we will give that a try. Stay tuned.

Note added on 8/30. We ended up not going on Friday, among other things we needed to do was to get the boat prepared for the hurricane. We did hear a bit of the live broadcast (most of the Schubert piece) on WQXR. This will be our last concert this season. Next season will start in late September with Met's Anna Bolena. And I will be starting another scrap book then.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Louis Langree, conductor; Nelson Freire, piano. August 20, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra Right (Seat D6, $50).

Symphony in C (1938-40) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1804-06) by Beethoven (1770-1827)

Anne had to go to a volunteer meeting in Flushing earlier today, so she drove the car in. I met up with her and her co-worker Vivian in Flushing. They ran about an hour late, though, so we couldn’t make it to the 7 pm free concert. We had dinner at Ollie’s.

Our seats were not the best, being the fourth row from the stage, and a bit to the right, thus directly below the second violin section. I experimented with the M|M website for next week’s program, and one could only get “best available” seats which are B2 and 4, even worse. The upside of this was we could hear the piano very clearly.

The Program Annotator (David Wright) for these M|M concerts certainly speaks more to my level, although one could argue a bit if his observations were a bit contrived, especially when it came to Beethoven’s concerto. I will touch on this later in this blog.

Per Wright, Stravinsky looked at composing music as a job more than as an expression of his emotion. The Symphony in C was written during a period when his daughter, his wife, and his mother passed away within six months or so, the first two from tuberculosis (Stravinsky himself was diagnosed with the disease that year). Yet the composer said an attempt to look for personal emotion would be in vain. The composition of music, however, did help him recover.

Compared to what we heard a few days ago (Symphonies of Wind Instruments) this is clearly a more traditional symphony. It even contains the usual four movements: Moderato alla breve, Larghetto concertante, Allegretto, and Largo – Tempo giusto, alla breve. There evidently is quite a bit of debate on whether Stravinsky meant for this to be a “real” symphony, or just a more complex version of ballet music. My vote is with the latter. The piece certainly isn’t easy to perform, at least for this orchestra, but the relatively limited range of emotions and the repetitions of several basic motifs support the argument that this is not a symphony in the manner of other masters such as Mozart or Bruckner. Knowing the situation Stravinsky found himself in at the time, one could attribute some emotion to the end, despite the composer’s statement that it is not so.

Our seats allowed us to hear the second violins clearly. For some reason one of them came across particularly clearly during this piece. Good thing she played very well. She wasn’t particularly loud, nor did she move around more than the others (unlike our “heart-attack” violist in the Philharmonic), so an individual’s ears may be tuned to particular timbres.

Since Nelson Friere won a piano competition with Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in 1957, and began his international career in 1959, one would think he must be in his 70s. Turns out he was born in 1944 and thus a mere 66 years old: another of these Every Ready Bunny child prodigies.

Beethoven also wrote this concerto during a turbulent period in his life (of course most periods in Beethoven’s life were turbulent). Among other things, he was going deaf. Annotator Wright describes some of the passages as a dialogue of Beethoven’s better self with his inner demons (especially the second movement), I am quite sure this is an after-the-fact interpretation and Beethoven didn’t say “Ah, let me fight with myself.” In any case, much of Beethoven’s music shows this sort of stark contrast and juxtaposition. Nonetheless, thinking of the music this way makes it much more interesting. Awareness of this fact sheds new light as one listens to the outbursts of the orchestra and the quiet passages of the piano in the second movement. The Program Notes also indicates the C major start of the third movement is the wrong key for a concerto in G major. I never understand statements of this sort. Perhaps I would appreciate the difficulty if I knew my composition techniques more, but in this case Beethoven managed to move along seamlessly with a couple of short phrases in the strings.

All this technical analysis doesn’t detract from the fact that this was an enjoyable performance. Again, our seats allowed us to hear the piano clearly; while it was never overwhelming, you do wish the orchestra could keep up, or the balance between the soloist and the orchestra could work out better. We heard this live last year (Ohlsson and Orpheus) and the year before (Ax and New York Philharmonic). I don’t think I would discuss this performance as effusively as I did Ax’s. But it was very good. For the record, the movements are Allegro moderato, Andante con moto – Rondo: Vivace.

It didn’t take much applause to prod Friere into encores. I am quite sure his first one was a Chopin Nocturne, with the repetitive left hand accompaniment and the mixing of beats in the two hands; the second one sounded American, Copland perhaps? We left after the second one, he did continue (I won’t know how many.)

With M|M concerts, I take the attitude of just go and enjoy. Tonight’s concert exceeded expectations. The New York Times Review identifies the encores by Freire, he played a couple of pieces by a Brazilian composer, of course.

We drove to Flushing to drop Vivian off, and still managed to get home by about 11:30 pm, even though traffic was a bit on the heavy side.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Jonathan Nott, conductor; Juho Pohjonen, piano. August 16, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra Left (Seat S106, $50).

Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1947) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K.488 (1786) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Because of our travels, we would only be home during the second half of the festival, which mostly takes place in August. So far I have bought tickets to three of the remaining four concerts, all at 50% off (plus service fee) from Goldstar. Atrium Discounts now offers them at 50% off also, but too late, unless it works out for the festival finale at the end of next week. In any case, the concert hall was reasonably full (third tier was roped off), I assume most people didn’t pay full price.

The wise people of the M|M committee thought it would make sense to explore the connection between Stravinsky and Mozart, and all three of the concerts indeed have pieces by Stravinsky in it. There are a couple of interesting tidbits of information. Evidently Stravinsky had made a rather caustic statement about Mozart’s symphonies, saying they would be fine if the development sections are cut out. Harlow Robinson (whose article Mozart/Stravinsky: 1791/1971 appears in the Playbill) says the two composers mirror each other. Turns out on our way back home we were listening to this treatise analyzing Ives’ music, and the analysis there was more the imagination of the writer rather than what Ives’ sought to do. Similar sentiments from me in the Mozart/Stravinsky case.

The first piece was performed by 21 woodwind and brass players, plus the conductor. The construction of the piece was simple as the intent was to highlight how different groups of voices (thus the title) would sound. Also, Stravinsky wrote this as a tribute to Debussy who died a couple of years earlier. I find the construction of the music relatively simple, the dynamic range rather limited, and the melodies – while tonal – rather pedestrian (nothing like say The Rite of Spring). At the end (maybe 30 seconds) I did hear some emotion come through, but it was too little, too late. This somehow reminds me of Dumbarton Oaks, another work by Stravinsky that I don’t find particular appealing. Supposedly Balanchine choreographed this into a ballet, and the music will evoke definite images for those who have seen the ballet.

I didn’t know Mozart reserved some piano concertos for his own exclusive use. The one we heard today was one of them. The Program Notes calls it a “middle child” (of K.482, 488, and 491) and points out there are no trumpets or timpani, and uses clarinets instead of oboes. All well and good.

The pianist is described as “one of the brightest young instrumental talents to emerge from Finland” in the Program Notes. From where we sat he looked like a teenager at first glance, but a bit older on closer examination. Since he started “junior academy” in 1989, I guess he would have to be in his 30s. His playing is best described as “all right hand” (perhaps a fairer description is “mostly right hand”). The melody is well articulated, but the rest of the score seems to play only a supporting role. I usually say I like Mozart “crispy” (which he achieved) but I realize I took “balanced” for granted. He also had some problems with several runs. On the other hand, Mozart is always enjoyable (even though I sometimes fall asleep during the slow movements) and this was no exception.

The movements of the concerto are Allegro, Adagio and Allegro assai. Mozart’s cadenza was performed.

Beethoven started his fourth symphony around 1803, but the work kept getting interrupted and eventually displaced by another symphony, which also became the actual fourth. The original one ended up being his famous fifth. Thus this symphony is also in some way a middle child, nestled between two well-known works. I don’t have it in my CD collection, and wasn’t familiar it.

The Program Notes contains a good description of the construction of the movements, which I find very useful. I do have a little problem with the last sentence “The music takes on a perpetual-motion momentum, which is what makes the hesitant, teasing coda so agonizingly effective.” Turns out the coda was very short – certainly shorter than the time it takes to read the sentence; case of a writer not wanting a good line to go to waste. The four movements are (i) Adagio – Allegro vivace; (ii) Adagio; (iii) Allegro molto e vivace – Un poco meno allegro; and (iv) Allegro ma non troppo.

One feels this level of playing is about at the limit of the orchestra’s capability. There was a line which calls for a seamless interleaving of wind and string instruments which was botched quite badly. The 16th note runs, especially in the last movement, could properly be called atrocious. And the timpani, it was out of tune lots of times. I don’t know if it was the tuning, or how it was hit, but the effect was the equivalent of scratching a chalkboard with one’s fingernail.

A short note on the conductor, whom we saw a couple of times before (quite a few years back though.) I thought he elicited a good performance from the orchestra, especially the Mozart piano concerto where the dynamics was superb.

One goes to a M|M concert to enjoy an evening, not to engage in an intellectual critique of the program or the performance (even though that can’t be helped); a little summer music, if I might paraphrase. In that the Festival succeeds quite well. I think I will enjoy the upcoming concerts also. Here is the New York Times Review.