Sunday, November 20, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Bernard Haitink, conductor. November 19, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat BB104, $70.)

Symphony No. 96 in D major, Hob. I:96 (1791) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881-83, rev. 1885; ed. L. Nowak, 1954) by Bruckner (1824-96).

The last time Haitink’s name came up was last week:  he was listed as Boston Symphony’s Conductor Emeritus.  Today was the first time we saw him in a live performance.  Somehow I knew he was about 80 years old, so I was expecting someone in the “mode” of a Maazel, Masur, Previn, or (Colin) Davis. Let me say at the outset that proved to be wrong, for a while I thought I had to be mistaken because he conducted like a much younger person (well, someone in his 60s, maybe).  I checked my iPhone during intermission, indeed he was born in March, 1929, making him 82 years old.  The other surprise is he was greeted like a rock star (by New York Philharmonic audience standards, that is).  In addition to enthusiastic applause, there was quite a bit of hollering.  And some of that came when he first stepped onto the stage, before the first note was played.  I have been going to New York Philharmonic concerts for quite a few years, and had never heard him until today; I can’t imagine the rest of the audience has (have?) heard him much either.  While the accolades turned out to be well deserved, it was still a bit puzzling.

Haydn of course was a prolific composer, in part due to his appointment at the court of Prince Esterhazy, which required him to produce new music in great frequency.  When the court finally cut back on its arts programs, Haydn had the chance to visit London, once in the years 1791 and 1792, once in 1794 and 1795.  During each of the stays Haydn produced six symphonies which are collectively called his London Symphonies (No. 93-98, 99-104; evidently he didn’t write any symphonies between the two visits.)  This symphony also carries the designation “Miracle,” supposedly because a chandelier fell down during its first performance and no one was hurt.  Historians seem to agree a chandelier did fall during a Haydn symphony, but it wasn’t this one.  I suppose people just associate the work with “miracle,” just like the 12 symphonies probably have limited “London” sound to them.

This symphony’s four movements are (i) Adagio – Allegro; (ii) Andante; (iii) Menuetto and Trio – Allegretto; and (iv) Finale: Vivace (assai); they add up to about 20 minutes.  Compared to other Haydn symphonies I heard, this one is relatively complex, with solo lines by various instruments including the oboe, bassoon, and duets by violins.  It was an excellent performance, crispy, loud and heavy, and soft and light where it should be.  And the dynamic range was just excellent.  The last movement was especially enjoyable.  While it is technically relatively simple, I was still impressed with how precise the orchestra sounded.

On paper the Bruckner symphony would provide great contrast to the Haydn one.  It is much longer at 65 or so minutes, it was written about 100 years later, and Bruckner’s music tends to be long and (my words) more narrative.  While all that is true, the difference is not as great as one would expect.

The orchestration is on the traditional side with a few notable exceptions.  Four Wagner tubas (two tenors, two basses) were used; these are devised by Wagner for his Ring Cycle operas and not used much outside of those operas.  There was also a large brass contingent: four French horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and one tuba.  I actually counted 5 French horns and 4 trumpets, putting the total number of brasses at 17.  They never sounded too loud, though, indicating a good conductor can find the right balance among the different orchestra sections.  I do wonder whether they got the extra brass players (especially Wagner tubas) from the Met.  Come to think of it, this is one of the better performances by the brass section, despite the occasional sloppy note.  The strings were out in full force also: I counted 16 first violins, 13 second violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, and 8 basses.  In terms of percussion, there is of course the timpani.  In the edition used for this performance, there is also the cymbal and the triangle.  There is a lot of discussion in the Program Notes about how Bruckner got talked into putting these two instruments in a revision to the original, but eventually declared them invalid (or did he?).  They only appeared once (I think the cymbal clanged only once) towards the end of the second movement.  Since the notes are played at the same time, you actually have two percussionists sitting through a 65 minute symphony feverishly hoping they got the timing right; or were they just listening to their iPods?

I do think “narrative” is a good way to describe Bruckner’s symphonies (as opposed to Mahler’s wanderings).  While the development of a movement may not be traditional, you always feel the composer is trying to lead you somewhere, and willingly go along.  There is a lot of structure to his music that is readily discernable.  For example, the first movement (Allegro moderato, about 20 minutes) was started by cellos playing a melody, when that melody reappears after 20 minutes, you know the movement is about to end.  Interestingly, the movement didn’t end on a loud chord, in a way it just stopped.  The second movement (Adagio: Very solemn and very slow – Moderato, about 25 minutes) is called the “Wagner tribute” as Bruckner had imagined Wagner (whom he called the Master) was about to die – which happened about a month afterwards.  The use of horns and the Wagner tubas make it sound quite Wagnerian, at times evoking the Valhalla motif from the Ring Cycle.

For reasons unclear to us, the tuba moved from the middle of the brass section to the end between the second and the third movement.  It may or may not have something to do with the Wagner tubas being quiet during the third movement; but the tuba didn’t move back for the fourth movement where the Wagner tubas were used again.  And it was an obvious move: the tuba is a huge (and shiny) instrument.  With this movement (Scherzo: Very fast – Trio: A little slower; 12 minutes) we are back to the sunny disposition of the symphony.  The contrast between the scherzo and the trio is more pronounced than the tempo marking would indicate, though.  The relatively short fourth movement (Finale: Moving, yet not fast; 8 minutes) concluded the piece.

The applause at the end was enthusiastic, and Haitink came out multiple times to acknowledge the audience.

The uncharacteristically short New York Times review was very positive.  It also states the opening Bruckner theme was played by violas and cellos.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Boston Symphony Orchestra – Myung-Whun Chung, Conductor; Garrick Ohlsson, Pianist. November 12, 2011.

Symphony Hall, Boston, First Balcony (Seat E37, $51.25)

Overture to the Opera “Der Freischutz” (1820) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826).
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 39 (1962) by Samuel Barber (1910-1981).
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathetique” (1893) by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

We are in the Boston area for several days to babysit our son’s dog while he and Jess go on a short trip to Madrid.  We looked around and found there were tickets available for this concert (both Friday and Saturday.)  They were discounting Friday’s tickets, but we were a bit too tired (from driving around the area) to make the 7 pm start time.  The $45 seats (plus $6.25 fee) we ended up getting actually had a good view of the stage.  I wish we had brought our binoculars, though.

We didn’t want to pay for parking, last time we went to Symphony Hall we parked a couple of blocks away.  This time we were a good 15-minute away, but it was a nice fall evening.

If you look at the BSO roster, for conductor they list only two: Bernard Haitnik as Conductor Emeritus, and Seiji Ozawa as Music Director Laureate.  James Levine actually resigned at the beginning of the season due to health reasons.  I still find it interesting that there is no mention of him that I could find in the rather thick program, perhaps the parting wasn’t cordial?

Weber’s opera relays the story of a “free shooter” (who shoots bullets) who sold his soul.  The overture contains themes from the opera, and the horns supposedly evoke images of a forest (don’t they always?).  Still, the 10 minute piece is a delight, and started the concert propitiously.  The Program Notes contains a detailed description of how the piece is structured, and it is easy to follow along.

Barber is an all-American composer, born in Pennsylvania and died in New York.  This concerto was written for John Browning, who would perform it nearly 150 times by 1969.  It also won Barber a second Pulitzer Prize (which may or may not mean a lot; Cornell Symphony’s conductor Karel Husa also won a Pulitzer Prize for a composition that is not played much – if at all – nowadays.)

There is no doubt that this is a virtuoso piece; indeed even Vladimir Horowitz suggested simplifying a passage to make it more playable at the proper tempo.  Both the pianist and the orchestra seemed to enjoy their collaboration; and Ohlsson appeared very much in his element.  Nonetheless, sometimes the piano was simply overwhelmed: from where I sat I could see the pianist’s hands and fingers moving frantically, but couldn’t even make out the piano’s sound with my hands cupped behind my ears.  The piece sounded great when only a limited number of orchestra members played, and there were quite a few passages of that nature.  The composer himself provided a description of the music for the premiere.  The three movements are (i) Allegro appassionato, Canzone, and Allegro molto.  The second movement is a rework of a prior work for flute and piano, and highlights the flute.  The 5/8 time of the last movement retains its firm grip even as the music goes through its many gyrations.

The “Pathetique” Symphony is very much associated with the composer’s death nine days after conducting its premiere.  The second performance was part of the memorial concert for him. Various stories have Tchaikovsky suffering from severe depression because he was afraid his homosexuality would be exposed, and that he drank an untreated glass of water on purpose to contract cholera.  The Symphony has four movements: (i) Adagio – Allegro non troppo; (ii) Allegro con grazia; (iii) Allegro molto vivace; and (iv) Adagio lamentoso – Andante.

Even though many of the tunes in the Symphony sounded familiar, I have heard the whole piece only a limited number of times.  I was surprised how some themes (e.g., one in the second movement) were used over and over, without sounding too repetitious.  The third movement has a very energetic tempo, unusual for a third movement of a Symphony; and the audience applauded afterwards.  Perhaps a bit of a faux pas, but also an indication of how appreciate the audience was.  Indeed it was an enjoyable performance.  In any case, the triumphal sounding third movement wasn’t enough to overcome the overall pathos of the piece, punctuated by the fourth movement, which ended on pizzicato on strings against a pedal point dotted note in the bass.  I wonder which Symphony is sadder, this one, or the one by Mahler (“Tragic,” also his sixth).

Myung-Whun Chung is the music director of the Seoul Philharmonic, although he has spent a lot of time in the USA (New York and Los Angeles) during his early career.  He conducted the program without music, and evoked a great sound from the orchestra (except for the balance issue during the piano concerto.)  I have heard the BSO several times (including at Tanglewood), and thought one of their hallmarks is how precise they are.  By that measure they are a bit sloppy today, perhaps inevitable without a permanent music director?  But they certainly belong in the upper echelons of ensembles, at least of the ones I have heard.

The Boston Globe’s Review of the program is not all that positive.  Neither is the lengthy review by this organization called “Arts Fuse.”  There may be a bit of Levine-withdrawal at work here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Celebrity Constellation Production Team “Land of Make Believe”. October 28, 2011.

On board Celebrity Constellation.  Celebrity Theater: Seat Balcony Left.

This is a one-hour Broadway-style mini-show with a rather old story line: a couple wants to get married, the groom’s mother doesn’t like the bride-to-be and schemes to break up the relationship, but to no avail.  At the end all is well that ends well.

Tried and true the story line might be, in the hands of a good producer, the right elements could be brought to bear to make the show enjoyable.  Alas, this wasn’t the case here.

The show does draw storylines from different shows (including Broadway’s), these include Wicked, Bye Bye Birdie, and others.  (I am not that familiar with Broadway shows, and I am typing this several days later.)

Again, you have to admire the cast’s ability to take on the workload, the same people from last night’s show were playing different roles in this production; there was even this dream sequence performed by the acrobats, who also double as actors in the cast.

[Note: We saw another evening program, this time a magic show, after this one.  Those were the three we watched during this 12-night cruise.]

Celebrity Constellation Production Team “Celebrate the World”. October 27, 2011.

On board Celebrity Constellation.  Celebrity Theater: Seat Balcony Left.

We are on a cruise of the Mediterranean with a group from church.  Many wanted to see this show and asked us to come along.  We are not fans of these variety-type shows, but decided at the last minute to go.  Anne slept through most of the one-hour show.

The show basically comprised of songs and dance from various countries, including Thailand, China, Ireland, France, and Russia.  I think they were all performed by a troupe of 15 or so artists, so one amazing thing is how quickly they could change their costumes.

Several pieces that I enjoyed were: Don’t Cry for me Argentina from the Musical, Acrobats from China, and the Irish “tap dance” where people made noise with their shoes without moving (much) their upper bodies.  Someone also sang “Nessum Dorma” but not quite up to operatic standards, as part of the Italy segment.

When the Cruise Director came out to greet the group, we thought it was a good time to leave.

One may ask, legitimately, whether shows of this kind are worth blogging about.  I decided to at least jot down my thoughts so I can recall how I feel about it, in case I wonder sometime in the future.