Friday, October 14, 2011

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Gil Shaham, violin. October 13, 2011.

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

Fair Melusina Overture, Op. 32 (1833) by Mendelssohn (1809-1849).
Memorium (2011) by Cynthia Wong (b. 1982).
Symphony No. 73 in D Major, Hob. I:73 “The Hunt” (1782) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (1878) by Brahms (1833-1897).

Anne couldn’t go to this concert, so I took the train by myself.  I got to the Concert Hall at about 7:45 pm and didn’t have time to sell the ticket; there were quite a few sellers, anyway.  The concert was well-attended, though.

Tonight’s performance was a bit of a mixed bag.  The piece by Mendelssohn is quite short at about 10 minutes.  It describes the story of Melusina, a beautiful girl cursed to turn into a mermaid one day a week.  Her husband, despite her warning, looked at her one fateful day, and she disappeared, leaving behind her sound of wailing.  The music paralleled this story line well enough.  And the beginning of the performance showed a lot of promise; it had a spirited start, and the dynamics were great.  I would quibble a bit with how fast they took the “water” theme.

Cynthia Wong is one of the four young composers commissioned by Orpheus as part of Project 440, and this performance is the piece's world premiere.  The background of the piece was compelling: her father was checking into hospice care after she barely began this work.  The description in the Program Notes is such that you want to root for her, and her music; but I ended up being relieved that it was over.  There were parts that were nice (e.g., the ending), but overall the message (compassion, per the composer) didn’t come through.  There is “gibberish” written into the piece that left me scratching my head.  The lead violin had quite a few lines, but it was barely audible, despite her pronounced movements.

The Haydn symphony is named “The Hunt” because the last movement was composed as the overture to an opera which begins at a temple to Diana, the goddess of hunting.  It also quotes a hunting call by another composer (Jean-Baptiste Morin).  The movements are (i) Adagio – Allegro; (ii) Andante; (iii) Menuetto; and (iv) Finale: Presto (The Hunt).

The music is simple enough, and easy to enjoy.  The Orpheus Programs Notes is moving to a new format this season: simplicity is the word.  For this symphony it contains some pointers to the listener which are quite useful.  For instance, you know the rhythm in the Minuet is interesting, and the Program Notes explains why.  For some reason the audience decided to applaud after each movement, which is somewhat annoying.  The last movement has a coda which reminds me of the “Joke” quartet: it surely got many people to applaud before the music really ended.  On the other hand, if these folks had read the Program Notes …

The Brahms violin concerto is a piece in the “standard” repertoire of a concert violinist, and much has been written about it.  The Program Notes conjectures how Brahms and Joachim may have cooperated in the writing of this piece.  I don’t have a lot of use for this kind of unverifiable speculation, but – to be charitable – it is at least thought provoking.

Not very long into the performance, I found myself asking the questions: Is this Gil Shaham the violinist?  Is the violin a Strad?  And is this Carnegie Hall?  I have heard Shaham several times before, all in Avery Fisher Hall, and he was always dependable, with a few quibbles from me here or there.  He didn’t botch the Brahms concerto, far from it, yet the performance left much to be criticized.  The sound of his violin didn’t carry well, even with a reduced-sized orchestra that had 11 violins, total.  One is supposed to hear every single instrument on the Carnegie stage, and the orchestra’s sound was at times only one big blob.  The music is complicated, so some of that is expected, and this again raises the question of whether a conductor would have shepherded the program along better.

Which brings me to another genuine question.  Do the orchestra musicians study the entire score so they know how the pieces fit together?  In a regular orchestra that usually is not necessary, other than in the broadest terms.  In a concerto of this complexity, the give and take of the soloist and the orchestra is an important aspect that won’t just happen.  I don’t think anyone was using the full score during the performance (otherwise there would have been a lot of page turning).

Shaham played an encore that was very familiar, but I don’t remember what it is called, or who composed it.

I rushed out afterwards to try to catch the 10:18 pm train, and ended up missing it by about 2 minutes.  So instead I took the 10:38 pm to Metropark, and got home reasonably early.

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