Thursday, December 27, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Berlioz’s Les Troyens. December 21, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony, Seat B114 ($97.50).

Conductor – Fabio Luisi; Cassandra, Trojan Prophetess, daughter of Priam – Deborah Voigt; Coroebus, engaged to Cassandra – Dwayne Croft; Aeneas, Trojan hero - Marcello Giordani, Dido, Queen of Carthage – Susan Graham; Anna – sister of Dido – Karen Cargill; Narbal, Dido’s Minister – Kwangchul Youn; Iopas, poet at Dido’s court – Eric Cutler; Ascanius, son of Aeneas – Julie Boulianne.

Story.  The first part of the opera (Acts I and II: La Prise de Troie) talks about how the Greeks invaded Troy by leaving a wooden horse behind.  Cassandra warns her father King Priam and her fiancĂ© Coroebus to flee the city, but she is ignored.  The Trojans bring the wooden horse left by the Greeks into the city as a way to appease Athena, the Greek deity.  The ghost of Cassandra’s brother Hector visits Aeneas and asks him to flee to Italy.  As the Greeks overrun the city, Cassandra and many other Trojan women commit mass suicide instead of being submitted to rape and enslavement.  The second part of the opera (Acts III, IV, V: Les Troyens a Carthage) centers around events in Carthage after the Aeneas and other Trojans arrived in Carthage.  Seven year prior, Queen Dido – whose husband was murdered -  and her people fled from their native Tyre and settled in Carthage.  They take in the Trojans after they are shipwrecked in a storm.  When the Numidians attack Carthage, the Trojans help the Carthaginians to repel them, thus earning their gratitude.   Aeneas and Dido eventually fall in love, and Dido begins to neglect her duty as Queen.  However, Aeneas is reminded of his mission by Mercury in a vision, so they set sail for Italy, leaving Queen Dido behind.  When she realizes what has happened, the queen ordered a pyre to be built to burn everything that reminds her of Aeneas, and she also commits suicide by stabbing herself on the altar.  Before she dies, she predicts Hannibal will avenge her against Italy.

The headline artists of this performance are Deborah Voigt and Susan Graham, both well known for their respective roles as a soprano and a mezzo-soprano.  I also generally enjoy Berlioz’s music, in particular his Symphonie Fantastique and Faust (which I also saw as an opera).  My expectations for the evening were thus quite high.

This is a long opera, lasting about four hours, five hours with two intermissions. Worried about gridlock during the holiday season, we got into the city quite early, and managed to find free off-street parking!  Dinner was at East Szechuan.  Our trip home was equally smooth.

I didn’t get to write this blog until today (December 26) because we spent Christmas in Boston with family, so I will probably end up with some very general observations.  The first thought that comes to mind was the opera didn’t have to be this long.  This is particularly true of Part II.  There were just many dance numbers that take up a lot of time (to illustrate how Dido and Aeneas are enjoying themselves).  The dancing was probably of high quality, and so was the music, but they didn’t add a lot to the drama.  Someone defending the work would say they added a lot to the overall experience (which I won’t argue with), but to me they do not add to the story much.  I guess it’s a debate similar to the one in Strauss’s Capriccio: is opera about music or about drama?  To my considerable surprise, I was quite awake for the entire performance, and actually quite enjoyed it.

The other surprise was that Deborah Voigt didn’t sound as strong as I expected.  She actually sounded weaker than Dwayne Croft (Coroebus) who according to the announcement at the beginning of the performance was still recovering from a cold.  Voigt was adequate, and actually was quite convincing as Cassandra.  Susan Graham, on the other hand, sang extremely well, her voice carried well into the balcony.

One main voice that spans both Parts was that of Marcello Giordani, playing Aeneas.  He could have shone as the anchor of the show but unfortunately was not quite up to the task.  I found his acting skills a bit on the wooden side also.

Most of the “supporting cast” did great jobs.  Eric Cutler, as Iopas the poet, got quite an enthusiastic applause from the audience.  Karen Cargill and Kwangchul Youn as Dido’s sister Anna and minister Narbal sang clearly and beautifully.  I also like Ascanius, son of Aeneas, as sung by Julie Boulianne.

The production calls for a large chorus.  I counted as many as 160 people on stage at the same time (probably under-counted, if anything.)  At the beginning of the show, they were all lying on the ground, and as the music progressed slowly moved about and eventually all got up.  I thought that was really effective.  The chorus appeared on multiple occasions and I enjoyed their singing.

Despite my opinion that there was too much extraneous dancing, the dancers actually did a great job, and the dances well choreographed.  The color theme for the Carthaginians was white, and the white clothes on the dancers certainly made for a beautiful sight.  Strangely, many of the dances were “unisex” in that the pairings were not always boy-girl.

The staging had as its foundation a nest-like structure built of slats, with a second level platform that served multiple functions, such as the path the Trojan horse was brought into the city, or the cave where Dido and Aeneas declared their love for one another.  Overall, the staging was effective and interesting.

The orchestra put in a great performance.  The music is quite pleasant, but as with my other Berlioz experiences, I probably will enjoy it more as I get more familiarized with it.

Overall it is an enjoyable experience.  However, the overall performance doesn’t quite live up to the grand scale that one would expect given the story and the length of the opera.  Contrast this with my experience with Prokofiev’s War and Peace or even the Broadway show Les Miserables, which brings to mind the word “epic.”

I found both a New York Times review that says the score lasts 4 ½ hours and is quite critical of many aspects of the performance - comparing it with Levine's performance in 2003; and a Huffington Post review that gives quite a bit of detail of Les Troyens history at the Met.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

New York Philharmonic - Juraj Valcuha, conductor; Andre Watts, piano. December 11, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat T103, $72.)

Overture to Oberon (1826) by Weber (1786-1826).
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1900-1901) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).
Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) (1946) by R. Strauss (1864-1949).
Suite from Der Rosenkavalier (1909-10/1944) by R. Strauss

Having returned from Hong Kong the day before, I wasn’t sure I could last through the whole evening without succumbing to jet lag.  Turns out I did, and during the piece I am most familiar with; more on that later.

In any case, I picked Anne up at 4 pm, after she was done with her class for the day.  Traffic was light into the city, and we actually found off street parking after circling the block a couple of times, total cost for parking on 67th ended up being $5.50.  A quick dinner at Ollie’s gave us enough time for coffee at the Rubenstein Atrium.

Three of the pieces for the evening are opera-related.  Two of them, according to the Program Notes, are from operas that weren’t too popular.  I do have some prior knowledge of Die Frau ohne Schatten, from an LA Opera promotion CD dating back about 10 years ago.  And Anne insists that WQXR uses a theme from Der Rosenklavalier quite frequently.  All three operas have interesting stories, although I am not sure that fact is germane to tonight’s program: the music doesn’t necessarily follow the plot of the opera.

Carl Maria von Weber is mostly known as an opera composer, and Oberon was his last.  It was a commission from Covent Garden that may have sapped his strength before he died of tuberculosis. He died less than two months after the premiere.  The Program Notes describes the music quite well, and it was pleasant to listen to, though not memorable.

Over the years, we have seen quite a few of Strauss’s operas (not the two on tonight’s program, though.)  One unifying theme about them: they are all difficult to understand, and the tunes aren’t quite singable.  The two pieces we heard tonight, while not very singable, were quite easy to grasp.  And it turns out what Anne is familiar with is the waltz within Rosenklavalier, having little to do with the main story.  And an interesting fact, it is an anachronism as the story took place about a century before waltzes came into being.

The headliner for the evening was definitely Andre Watts playing a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.  I have liked Watts since I began listening to his recordings while I was in college in the 70s, and Rachmaninoff concertos also work out well for those that can pull them off.

The Program Notes mentions there is always a “take-away” tune with Rachmaninoff’s concertos, and tonight’s was to be in the third movement.  I actually think there is one in each of the three movements (Moderato; Adagio sostenuto; and Allegro scherzando).  Too bad I was feeling a bit drowsy during the performance.  From the parts I was awake for, Watts certainly did a great job with it.  Too bad I didn’t listen to enough of it to know how well he strung them together.  The applause at the end was surely enthusiastic, but my prior experiences with the New York Phil audience tell me it’s more about the performer, not necessarily about the performance.

A few words about the Slovakian conductor Valcuha.  His movements are a bit exaggerated, though not animated, but I didn’t the orchestra was particularly responsive.

Another advantage of off-street parking is the easy get-away after the concert.  We were home before 11 pm.

The New York Times reviewer loved the concert, thinking the conductor was extremely effective.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Hong Kong Philharmonic - Jaap van Zweden, conductor; Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano. December 8, 2012.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall.  Stall 1 (Seat E10, HK$300.)

Program - Jaap's Mendelssohn
The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847).
Sea Pictures, Op. 37 by Edward Elgar (1857-1934).
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 Scottish by Mendelssohn.

I am staying in Hong Kong for about two weeks, unfortunately there are not many concerts during this time of the year.  While I am not familiar with any of the pieces on the program, I am certainly interested in checking out how the new conductor, and Mendelssohn is a dependable composer.  Not an “art song” person, I don’t know what to expect from the Elgar piece.  I went to this concert with Ling and Wally, who coincidentally also went to another concert in this “Jaap’s Mendelssohn” series.

Our seat at HK$300 per person (Ling even got a 50% senior discount) are not expensive.  They are on the front left part of the orchestra section, the view of most of the orchestra being blocked by the first violins.  If you look at the layout of the concert hall, there are not really that many good seats (at least as far as view is concerned).  Acoustically our seat is okay, we were able to hear different parts of the orchestra clearly.

According to the Program, the inspiration of the two Mendelssohn pieces came from his visit to Scotland in 1829, while The Hebrides came out soon afterwards, the Scottish Symphony wasn’t completed until 12 years later: Mendelssohn made a remark that he would never forget what the place looked like (barren, rugged, unforgiving), and how the people acted (unfriendly, drinking all the time.)

To my ears the two compositions sounded similar.  The Hebrides last about ten minutes, and portrays the bleakness of the Cave that Mendelssohn actually.  My expectation having been set by what I have read in the Program Notes, the music didn’t sound as bleak or desolate as I would expect.

The Program contains a good description of the four movements: (i) Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato; (ii) Vivace non troppo; (iii) Adagio; and (iv) Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai.  Mendelssohn chose not to supply a program for the music, so the listener needs to supply his own commentary and to correlate different sounds with different phenomena.

Sandwiched between the two Mendelssohn pieces is the Elgar composition.  Elgar set to music the following five poems, all related to the sea: (i) Sea Slumber Song by Roden Noel; (ii) In Haven (Capri) by Caroline Alice Elgar; (iii) Sabbath Morning at Seat by Elizabeth Barrett Browning; (iv) Where Corals Lie by Richard Garnett; and (v) The Swimmer by Adam Lindsay Gordon.  Elgar suggested that “it is better to set the best second-rate poetry to music, for the most immortal verse is music already.”  And he was true to form here: the only poet I knew from the group is Browning.  In Haven (Capri) was written by his wife.

The songs were first performed by Clara Butt who was dressed in a way that suggested a sinuous mermaid.  Interesting, and appropriate; except today’s performer Stotijn was dressed in a way that would take more imagination that I have to evoke any images of the sea.  Her voice was generally weak, which can’t all be attributed to acoustics since we sat so close.  And the dynamic range was quite limited, in this case always somewhere between mp and mf.  Since I have heard some very strong mezzo-sopranos, I don’t think it was a case of my ears not tuned to hear this range (as appears to be the case with violas.)

The music overall was pleasant enough, so I didn’t feel like I suffered through the 30 or so minutes of this work.

Van Zweden appeared to be much more clean cut than his official portrait would look like.  And he isn’t tall like most of the Dutchmen I know.  It took me a while to reassure myself that it was indeed him conducting.  He certainly conducts with a lot of energy, we could hear him grunt as he urged on the orchestra.  Evidently he is a violinist, having been the concertmaster of The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and will turn 52 later in the month.  He also leads the Dallas Symphony.

Still, I must say calling this series of concerts (I don’t know how many) Jaap’s Mendelssohn is a bit preposterous.  To me, there should be something special about the interpretation before one can so designate a performance.  Despite my unfamiliarity with the music, I can say definitely that there was nothing special about the performance, pleasant as it was.  I see in the Program there is an upcoming “Jaap’s Mahler.”  One probably cannot become a conductor without a huge ego, but one also needs to know in what echelon of conductors one belongs.

I have said quite a few times that I am quite impressed with the level of playing of the Hong Kong Philharmonic.  And today’s performance did not change that overall opinion.  However, the program may also test the limit of their capability.  In my experience, even if you sit close to an orchestra – as I have done on several occasions – the individual sections still sound like one voice.  One will have to listen carefully if one is to pick up a specific player’s playing.  The end of the Scottish Symphony calls for rapid runs from the orchestra, and I certainly could hear several different first violins, without straining my ears to do so.  Not as bad as my recent New Jersey Symphony experience, but certainly surprising.

Since I am in a critical mood, let me take up the Program Notes, written by a Dr. Marc Rochester (I guess Program Annotators have egos also).  The two Mendelssohn write-ups were by-and-large uncorrelated, it is as if he wrote them on two separate occasions and didn’t bother to do any edit for the evening.  It would have been much more informative if he had taken some time to describe the two pieces together, in the context of Mendelssohn’s visit to Scotland.

Overall it was an enjoyable concert, and I am glad I went.  I just expected a perfect evening, that’s all.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. November 24, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony, Seat D117 ($92.50).

Conductor – Fabio Luisi; Count Ribbing – Keith Miller, Count Horn – David Crawford, Oscar – Kathleen Kim, Gustavo III – Marcelo Alvarez, Count Anckarstrom – Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Judge – Mark Schowalter, Madame Ulrica Arvidsson – Dolora Zajick, Cristiano – Trevor Scheunemann, Amelia – Sondra Radvanovsky.

Story.  King Gustavo III and Amelia, wife of his friend and secretary Anckarstrom are in love.  Amelia seeks out the fortune teller Arvidsson for advice.  Arvidsson says Amelia should go to a cemetery to find a herb that will rid her of her desire.  She runs into Gustavo III there while a group of rebels led by Ribbing and Horn are also pursuing the king.  The king asks Amelia to put on a veil, and asks Anckarstrom to take her back to the city while the king escapes.  The taunting of the group goads Amelia in removing her veil, thus making known the fact she was with the king.  Feeling betrayed, Anckarstrom joins the rebels and gets selected to assassinate the king.  The king throws a masquerade ball and the three co-conspirators attend the event.  After getting the page Oscar to point out the king’s costume, Anckarstrom stabs the king to death.  Before the king dies, he tells his friend that Amelia has always been faithful, and pardons everyone.

After La Clemenza di Tito, CS and I had coffee at the Rubenstein atrium while we waited for Anne to show up after her CCHC lunch in Flushing.  We sat there, chatted a while, and then decided to go down to Whole Foods for a simple dinner.  Usually Whole Foods in the Time Warner Building is very crowded, it was busy, but we manage to find a place to sit down to enjoy our meal.  We then walked around the shops in the building – it seems there have been quite a few changes since we were last there.  Very soon it was time to head back to Lincoln Center.  CS bought a ticket for the New York Philharmonic, Anne and I headed to the Opera House.

I was wondering whether I was overdoing it after the Opera started.  I felt quite tired and had trouble keeping awake.  Eventually I woke up, got quite caught up with the piece, and really enjoyed this performance.

I said in my prior post that the Mozart performance was technically great but didn’t quite grab me.  One could find more flaws with this performance, but my overall reaction was quite different.

First, the action is faster paced.  Verdi’s music simply propelled the story along to its inexorable conclusion.  Even though I knew how the story would unfold, having read the synopsis, I was still very caught up with the development of the plot.

This opera was written by Verdi when he was in his 40s, after having completed his “trilogy” of Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore, and before Verdi turned to more dramatic and continuous (and to me less melodic) works such as Otello and Falstaff.  This opera has a lot of pleasant and singable arias, but also has a heavy dose of continuous dramatic action.

The orchestra really got into the music, providing a wide range of dynamics, from soft harp passages to heavy drum beats.  There are some woodwind (I think one of them is an alto clarinet) passages that are just splendid.

The set was interesting and simple.  One can think of all the action taking place inside a box which is configured to be the different scenes.  There is a mural showing Icarus falling backwards from Apollo, with his wings breaking off.  Anne and I aren’t sure whether this has anything to do with the story or not.  I suspect one can always make an argument for a connection, but that argument is not obvious.

A lot is asked of the singers also.  All three principals (Alvarez as Gustavo III, Hvorostovsky as Anckarstrom, and Radvanovsky as Amelia) sang beautifully. There are some tongue-twisting quick passages that weren’t perfectly executed; but not so much that it would take away one’s appreciation of the singers’ skill. Their acting skills aren’t shabby either.  While the opera doesn’t provoke the same emotion as a La Traviata or a Tosca, I did find myself sympathizing with the principals, and wishing things would turn out differently (not that they ever do.)

The role of Oscar is sung by a woman, in this case the Korean soprano Kathleen Kim.  She was made up in a somewhat comical and slightly grotesque way, wearing a goatie and sprouting wings every now and then, often with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.  This evidently is one of the few instances Verdi uses a woman to play the role of a male character.  Her voice is great, and I am sure would be more appreciated if she had just been more traditionally costumed.

Speaking of costumes, I am sure people in Denmark didn’t dress like that in late 18th century.  Since the story doesn’t really hinge on the specific people or era, the dresses, suits and ties weren’t too detracting.

In my opinion, the Program Notes oversells the work a bit.  For instance, the singing that grows from a solo to a quintet in Act III, while nicely “engineered,” isn’t as ingenious as the Notes would lead one to believe.  Similarly, the laughing chorus at the end of Act II isn’t as sinister as the Notes suggest.  That doesn’t mean the genius of Verdi as an opera composer doesn’t come through; but he does that routinely in his operas, not just this one.

There are two intermissions, which make the entire program last until 11:35 pm.  It also took a while for our car to be retrieved from the garage, so it was close to 1 am Sunday that we got home.  This weekend may not have been as tiring as our Seattle Ring foray, but it was tiring enough.

The New York Times review has a lot of good things to say about the opera, but is quite critical of the production.  Here we do get an explanation of how Icarus parallels the king.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. November 24, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle, Seat H220 ($45).

Conductor – Harry Bicket; Vitellia – Barbara Frittoli, Sesto – Elina Garanca, Annio – Kate Lindsey, Tito – Giuseppe Filianoti, Servilla, Lucy Crowe, Bublio, Oren Gradus.

Story.  The emperor Tito falls in love with Servilla (Sesto’s sister) but she is in love with Annio.  Servilla is brave enough to tell Tito her true feelings and gets the blessing of the monarch.  Vitellia, daughter of the emperor overthrown by Tito, loves Sesto but vacillates between wanting to kill the king to wanting to marry him for the power.  She convinces Sesto, who is a good friend of the Tito, to assassinate him.  Sesto starts a rebellion but relents about killing the emperor.  Sesto is condemned to death, but is granted clemency by Tito after much deliberation on his part. Sesto and Vitellia marry each other.

The story above quite accurately describes what happens in the opera, but is not a synopsis as the story unfolds along multiple parallel lines.  The synopsis in the Program is quite interesting: it basically contains a brief description of each aria and recitative; it works quite well, though.

We had Thanksgiving dinner with the Yangs, and CS told me he bought a single ticket to this Saturday performance in the Family Circle section.  Since Anne was going to be going to lunch with her CCHC group, I decided to also buy a Family Circle ticket ($35, plus $10 handling charge.)  Anne and I were planning to go to another opera that evening (see following blog.) That would mean in about 28 hours I will have been inside a concert hall for more than 8 hours.  I felt quite ready for it at that time.

The Saturday turned out to be a rather long one.  We left our house at about 10:15 am so Anne could make her lunch in Flushing, I then stopped by KFC for a quick bite, and got into the Westside at around 12:30 pm, giving me enough time to pick up the ticket, and to exchange the couple of La Clemenza di Tito tickets we already had (you read it right) for another concert: we couldn’t make this one anyway as I expect to be out of town.  We were done with the evening at about 11:45 pm, and didn’t get home until close to 1 am Sunday morning.

An objective listener would say it was a great Mozart performance.  The orchestra sounded crisp, the way I like Mozart to be played.  The voices were all great.  The set was quite interesting.  They had the same foreground (steps) that could be transformed into different scenes with the right staging.  They had a moving ship to transport Berenice away, the whole scene took all of perhaps one minute.  A bit overdone, in my opinion.  I also appreciated the period costumes the singers wore.

On the other hand, I am not a fan of Mozart (not in heavy doses, anyway.) And this is an opera perhaps only a Mozart lover would adore.  The story itself is okay, but doesn’t deserve the 2 plus hours it lasts.  The second half is especially problematic for me.  They have already caught Sesto in his act, so the entire Act is spent on Tito making up his mind, changing it, signing the death warrant, and then tearing it up.  It reminds of this daisy petal “he loves me he loves me not” process.  Just decide and get on with it already!  For me the most aggravating thing is using women to sing the roles of young men (Sesto and Annio.)  In Annio’s case they also changed the color of his wig which added to the confusion.  Given where I sat, I often couldn’t tell who was doing the singing, and I was hopelessly lost when the two men sang with Vitellia at the same time.

A case of a perfectly executed performance not appreciated by someone looking for something different.  In that regard I am glad I “saved” the more expensive seats for another opera.  I did move to Row D for the second half since the two seats next to CS were vacant.

The New York Times review contains some interesting information on the background of the opera.  It also goes down the list of singers and basically says each does well.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra - Hans Graf, conductor; Augustin Hadelich, violin. November 24, 2012.

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, NJ.  Seat Front Parquet (L44, $77).

In Autumn, Op. 11 by Grieg (1843--1907).
Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 by Sibelius (1865-1957).
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 by Brahms (1833-1897).

Anne was going to a Thanksgiving dinner with her Sunday School students, and there weren't too many interesting programs on TV.  Instead of sitting home and vegetate, I decided to buy a ticket to this concert.  The attraction for me is the Sibelius violin concerto.  Even though I am quite familiar with it, I would love to hear it again.

I bought the ticket earlier today, and was quite surprised at the cost (second most expensive at $74, plus $3 in handling charges.)  I have been to Richardson many times before to attend the free Princeton summer chamber music, usually getting there early enough to get rather good seats.  The seat I got for this concert is on the right side, quite close to the orchestra (reminds me of our Vienna seating.)  Since the stage is a bit higher, I could only look at the feet of a few second violinists.  There were several empty seats to my left, so I moved a couple of seats in, and the view there was a bit more reasonable, still poor, though.

The Grieg piece is relatively short at 12 or so minutes.  It is quite traditional in both sound and format, and quite pleasant.  This so-called concert overture started as one of Grieg's early large orchestra compositions, then got arranged as a piano piece, and got re-orchestrated by Grieg some twenty years later into tonight's form.  The history is interesting, but somewhat irrelevant as we would hear only one version (the later one.)

This piece in some sense set the tone for the rest of the evening.  The piece is pleasant to listen to and interesting musically.  But you wish the orchestra would do a better job with it.  Maybe it's the acoustics, or maybe it is the orchestra, the sound just wasn't quite what I expected.

We heard Hadelich perform with the New York Philharmonic last month.  We were seated in the first tier of Avery Fisher and I was not particularly impressed with how the performance went, opining that it lacked the intensity and passion one would expect from the Lalo composition.

Today's more intimate setting made a huge difference.  The violin certainly sounded great, as one would expect of a Strad.  I liked how the more virtuoso first and third movements were played.  Even though in today's Program Notes there is no mention of Sibelius's not succeeding as a violin player, that fact (or myth) is indelibly etched in my mind, and I would always think of the concerto as a way for the composer to come to terms with it.  Certainly I got the frustration of the first movement, and the acceptance of the third.

The second movement was not at the same level as the other two.  I got the impression the soloist is trying to get through it, and the balance with the orchestra was wanting.  Overall, I enjoyed this performance more than the Lalo piece.

As if the concerto wasn't difficult enough, for encore Hadelich played Paganini's Caprice No. 24.  It is just an amazing piece, and he did a flawless job, the broken hair on his bow evidently didn't bother him the least bit.  The audience showed their appreciation with their enthusiastic applause.

I was surprised that I wasn't familiar with Brahm's Third Symphony (except for the third movement.)  It is relatively short at about 35 minutes, and has the distinction of having every movement end on a soft passage.  This was written during Brahms' mature years (he was 50 years old), and reflects a bit of his melancholy despite being in the key of F major.

The piece is easy to like, and I enjoyed it.  That despite the rather sloppy performance by the orchestra.  I remarked to Anne there were 12 second violins, and I could hear all twelve of them playing during some of the faster runs.

Overall, I am glad I went.  This is a case of sloppy performance being saved by great compositions.  I was a bit surprised at the number of empty seats in the auditorium, an entire second row was not occupied.  And I am still a bit miffed at how expensive a ticket is.  For $70 I can get a decent seat at Lincoln Center, and the 46 Euro seats we got in Vienna certainly were more interesting.

This was the first of three performances of this program.  Let's hope they get better in the next two.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Vienna Philharmonic - Andres Orozco-Estrada, conductor; Rainer Honeck, violin. November 5, 2012.

Golden Hall at Musikverein, Vienna, Austra.  Seat Orchestra 1 (E46).

Program: A concert of the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna
Overture in G major by Luigi Cherubini.
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Stranvinsky
Symphony No. 4, C minor, D 417 ("Tragic") by Schubert

We are in Vienna with our friends David & Ruby, whom we have known since our college days.  One should never visit Vienna without going to a concert, so here we are.  The big names are of course the Vienna Philharmonic and the State Opera.  The State Opera has tickets only in the E250 range, which is a bit too much for us.  When I found out we could get contiguous seats at E46 each, I got them right away.  Notice the seats don’t have a row number.  We found out they are actually a few chairs they put out on the side, right behind the violas, right next to the cellos, and right in front of the basses.  Anne and I just had to make sure to suppress the cough we had, and good thing we did.

The acoustics of the hall isn’t quite up to what I recall of Tonhalle in Zurich, but certainly quite adequate, perhaps because we are so close to the players.  The first violins, quite far from us, were quite easy to hear.  On the other hand, I had trouble hearing the violas, which were right in front of us.  For some reason, my ears are simply not tuned to its pitch range and its timbre.

Riccardo Muti was supposed to be the conductor, but he had to withdraw because of illness.  Andres Orozco-Estrada, a young conductor of another of the many orchestras in Vienna, stepped in.  Since I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the original program, I am not completely certain (but quite sure) that the program was changed.  Similarly, the solo violinist is the Orchestra’s concertmaster; and I am sure he wasn’t the originally-scheduled soloist.

Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) was an Italian composer who spent most of his time in France.  I had never heard of him before, and thought his music sounded quite baroque.

The Stravinsky violin concerto was a first-time listen also.  It is quite long at about 30 minutes, not extremely difficult as far as I could tell.  On the other hand, it is easy to like, and I am sure I will enjoy it more as (if) I get to know it better.  There are some interesting effects.  For example, by having the piccolo doubling the violin, it sounds like harmonics are being used.  The solo violin’s sound was quite good, but didn’t project as well as I would like.

I am still not sure if I have heard the Schubert piece before - I do have that on my iPod.  Nonetheless, in one regard it is very Schubertian: the themes get used so many times that by the end the piece simply sounded very familiar.  The sound of the orchestra was crisp, and dynamics was great.

These last minute substitutions sometimes can make an artist.  Orozco-Estrada is a young man (may be early 30s?) and did a credible job.  I am not sure this event would make him, though.

One other surprising thing about the concert hall is how worn things look and how small the stage is.  The orchestra for tonight wasn’t particularly large, but there was not much spare room on stage.  The conductor’s dais is pushed all the way to the edge, and it is a good thing there is support behind him.  The wood of the stage could use a new coat of varnish, a long time ago.

Finally, we noticed that some double basses have 5 strings.  Need to do some research on that.

All said and done, we were all happy that we could see this event.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

New York Philharmonic – Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, conductor; Augustin Hadelich, violin. October 20, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  First Tier (Seat CC101, $69.50.)

Symphonie espangnole for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 21 (1874) by Lalo (1823-92).
Symphonie fantastique: Episode de la vie d’un artiste (Fantastic Symphony: Episode in the Life of an Artist), Op. 14 (1830) by Berlioz (1803-69).

This concert wasn’t in our original subscription for the season.  Because we changed our plans for October 4 (we saw Il Travotore), we switched our tickets for tonight’s concert.  I was surprised to see my name on the "Repeat Subscribers" insert, how efficient of them.

Anne was in Flushing earlier in the afternoon, and left a bit after 5 pm.  Traffic on the Queensboro Bridge and the East Side was so bad that by the time she got to the Lincoln Center area it was past 7:30 pm.  We put the takeout food I got from Ollie’s in the car, and instead each had a small sandwich (slider) at Avery Fisher Hall before the concert started.  We ate the takeout after we got home; nothing got wasted.

The Lalo piece is familiar to most violin students, and I have known it since high school.  As a show piece written with Sarasate in mind, it is not impossibly difficult to play, but sounds just great.  The Program Annotator remarks that the best Spanish music is written by French composers.  Lalo’s ancestry was Spanish but the family had settled in France for a long time by the time Edouard was born.

I had not heard of Hadelich before, so didn’t know what to expect.  He was born in Germany and raised in Italy, but got the bulk of his music education in the United States, and has had a very successful career, including winning the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, and being a recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2009.

The sound (from the 1723 “ex-Kiesewetter” Strad) was beautiful and clear, but a bit weak at where we were seated (First Tier).  We had not sit in this section for a while, so I am not sure if that’s the acoustics.  In any case, the passion that I usually associate with this piece did not come through.  The expression on Hadelich’s face oftentimes evoked the image of the joker in batman movies, which adds a dash of curiosity to the performance.

The orchestra turned in an effective performance.  Given my statement earlier about the weak violin sound, I found it amazing that the orchestra didn’t overwhelm the soloist, especially given its size.  I would attribute this to the conductor knowing how to work together with the violinist, especially given that the sound volume problem disappeared with the Berlioz piece.

Most listeners would call this a violin concerto, but not Lalo.  In any case, the piece has five movements: Allegro non troppo, Scherzando: Allegro molto, Intermezzo: Allegretto non troppo, Andante, and Rondo: Allegro.

Per the Program Notes, Fruhbeck has been a regular guest at the New York Philharmonic for the last few years, yet tonight was the first time I saw him.  He is in his early eighties, and conducts from a seated position.  However, he conducted energetically, often leaving his chair.

Prior to tonight, my exposure to the Berlioz piece had been only through CDs, but I do know that Berlioz was driven to write this because of his (at that time unrequited) love for Harriet Smithson.  The Program Notes added a lot to my sketchy knowledge, including the composer imagining himself to be in a drug-induced trance where he sees himself executed.

The Symphony is quite long at around 55  minutes, and consists of five parts.   Part One: Reveries, Passions; Part Two: A Ball; Part Three: A Scene in the Fields; Part Four: March to the Scaffold; and Part Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.

Given the nature of the music, things could easily get out of control.  Tonight’s performance reminds me of an earlier performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony conductor by the 80+ year old conductor Blomstedt where he allowed things to gallop forward without restraint, to great effect.  In Fruhbeck’ case he turned in a well-executed, lucid and controlled rendition of the story, which the audience could tag along and observe.  Perhaps having a storyline helped; I enjoyed the performance greatly.

A couple of interesting things one wouldn’t get from a CD.  First is the dialog between the oboe and the English horn (Part Three) had the oboe player played from the side of the stage.  The other is these two giant bells that were custom-made but had to be played off-stage because they were too loud.  (Too bad we didn’t get to see them.)

Berlioz did get to meet and eventually marry Smithson in 1833.  Unfortunately the marriage fell on hard times and they separated in 1844.  Smithson succumbed to alcoholism and died in 1854.  The music, however, will remain a tribute to this story.

In any case, I am glad we got to go to this concert, even though it was somewhat by chance.  I told Ellie on Sunday that she probably would have enjoyed it also.  Our friend (who shall remain nameless in this blog as he is on probation) certainly seemed to enjoy performing in it.

The New York Times reviewer was critical of the New York Philharmonic’s performance of the Lalo piece, but loved the Berlioz one, calling the overall performance “Jekyll and Hyde.”

Friday, October 05, 2012

Metropolitan Opera - Verdi's Il Trovatore. October 4, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Balcony, Seat E124 ($92.50).

Conductor - Daniele Callegari; Leonora - Carmen Giannattasio, Count di Luna - Franco Vassallo, Manrico - Gwyn Hughes-Jones, Azucena - Dolora Zajick.

Story.  See previous post.

A couple of weeks ago we returned the Il Trovatore tickets for another opera.  We got them as part of our subscription (Thursdays) with the intention of the exchange since we had seen it before.

The McNallys are in town, and when we were having dinner on our boat on Sunday I asked them if they wanted to go to New York Thursday to see a concert.  Our original intention was to buy two additional tickets for the New York Philharmonic concert we already had tickets for.  We decided to exchange those for several reasons: it contains a Schoenberg piece which may be a bit inscrutable, the McNallys had never seen a live opera, and we wanted to make the evening an enjoyable one rather than an intellectually challenging one. The “downside” is they don’t get to meet the new bass player in New York Phil, although it is unlikely that he would be in this concert with a more “intimate” program. In any case, with all these exchanges, I hope I have kept good records of what concerts we will end up going to!

We met up with our guests at East Szechuan Garden and had a quick and (relatively) light dinner before the concert.

Since we saw this before, we thought we would remember the story.  Both Anne and I found it very difficult to read the synopsis written in the Program Notes.  There are just too many things happening outside of the opera to make the reading straightforward.  Luckily I think I finally understood what was going on by the end of the performance, but there were quite a few instances where I simply wanted to give up.  As with some other Verdi operas (Ernani comes to mind), this is an opera whose story line could use some additional development.

This is Carmen Giannattasio’s debut at the Met.  And what a debut it is.  It makes me wonder how deep Met’s talent pool is, there are just so many of these young impressive sopranos: Meade and Machaidze are two others that come to mind.  Her voice could use some refinement at the “soft high” end of the spectrum, but otherwise it was just great.  All the other singers did very well also.  We saw the same Azecuna (Zajick).

Looking back at my writeup, I wasn’t that impressed with the 2009 performance – and we had better seats then.  Since I would like to think I have gotten a bit better at analyzing these things, I would conclude tonight’s was a much better performance.  It was good to know I was equally puzzled by the story.

In any case, we are happy the McNallys could come along.

The New York Times reviewer saw a different Leonora, and he like the performance very much.

New York Philharmonic - Alan Gilbert, conductor; Daniil Trifonov, Piano. October 2, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat U11, $69.50.)

Night on Bald Mountain (1867; arr Rimsky-Korsakov, 1886) by Musorgsky (1839-81).
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C manor, Op 26 (1917-21) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).
Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite, Op. 35 (1888) by Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).

I am writing this review about a week after the event, so I have probably forgotten most of it.  So let me at least get to the details of the program.  The Prokofiev concerto consists of three movements: (1) Andante – Allegro; (2) Tema con variazone, Tema: Andantino, Var I: L’istesso tempo, Var II: Allegro; Var III: Allegro moderato (poco meno mosso); Var IV: Andante meditative; Var V: Allegro giusto; Tema: L’istesso tempo; (3) Allegro ma non troppo.  Scheherazade consists of four movements: (1) Largo e maestoso – Allegro non troppo; (2) Lento – Andantino; (3) ndantino quasi allegretto; (4) Allegro molto.  Glenn Dicterow plays the violin solo passages.

If I remember correctly, Musorgsky (that’s how it is spelled in the Program, I had always thought it was Mussorgsky, and MS Word doesn’t tag the latter as a spelling error) had problems with alcoholism and died relatively young.  His work was usually modified by his contemporaries.  Night on Bald Mountain is no exception, there are many versions of it, and tonight’s version was arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov, and is the one most familiar with the listening public.

The Program Notes emphasizes the symphonic nature of Scheharazade and doesn’t use the familiar descriptions of (1) The Sea and Sinbad; (2) The Story of the Claendar Prince; (3) The Young Prince and the Young Princess; (4) Festival at Baghdad, The Sea, The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock Surrounded by a Bronze Warrior, Conclusion.  As far I am concerned, it is completely okay to have a narrative associated with the music; it actually keeps the listener’s mind more active.

My comment on the Rite of Spring performance last week was that it was too loud.  I thought the loudness was much more appropriate for tonight’s two orchestral pieces.  Both were done very well by the orchestra.

Gilbert in his introduction to the Program talks about how Glenn Dicterow taught his sister Jenny how to play the violin solo part in Scheharazade.  I hope she does better than her teacher.  Some passages are quite difficult, and Dicterow pulled them off, but the overall result was on the uninspired side.

There is a saying that talent is God’s way of being unfair.  In Trifonov’s case, one could make the case that God is very much so.  He was just amazing, both musically and technically.  I totally enjoyed the music.  Not being a pianist, I usually can’t tell how technically challenging a particular work is.  There was no doubt tonight that this is a virtuoso piece in its extreme.  And he pulled it off effortlessly.  I sat there amazed, and interestingly not worried that he would make a mistake – his playing was just that confident.  At the tender age of 21, he has a long career ahead of him.  Let’s hope he continues to get his audiences excited about his performances.

By the way, he sat in the audience for the second half.  He had to rush out afterwards, warding off the hordes of well-wishers pursuing him.

Overall, this was a much more enjoyable concert that that of the opening week.

The New York Times review is very postive.  Trifonov played an encore at that performance the reviewer attended.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. September 27, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony, Seat C111 ($97.50).

Conductor – Maurizio Benini; Adina – Anna Netrebko, Nemorino – Matthew Polanzani, Belcore – Mariusz Kwiecien, Dulcamar – Ambrogio Maestri, Giannetta – Anne-Carolyn Bird.

Story.  See previous post.

There are a few singers whose appearance on a program would get me to buy a ticket for the performance.  Anna Netrebko is one of them.  While her voice isn’t the smoothest, it is always radiant, carries well, and enjoyable.  Her acting skills could still use some improvement, though.

Great acting skills aren’t necessary for this opera.  It is a comedy with interesting dialog and a ton of pleasant tunes.  As long as you don’t give it too much scrutiny, the story moves forward at fast enough a pace, and there are enough comedic moments to propel the relatively short program forward (2 hours 15 minutes, plus an intermission).

We saw a New York City Opera performance in 2006, so I don’t remember much about that occasion.  I do remember the setting was relatively modern (say 1940s) and all the action happened inside and around a diner.  Tonight’s performance was set in 1836.  I don’t understand why it needs to be so precise, except perhaps to explain why the soldiers have these interesting caps.  The sets are a bit more complicated than what we saw at the NYC Opera performance, and they work quite well.

The last Met opera we saw was in April, and I don’t remember the acoustics at our seats for being this good.  Most of the singing came across clearly, and both Netrebko and Polanzani put in great performances.  The other two men (Kwiecien and Maestri) were a bit spottier.  There were some high notes that Netrebko barely made, though.

Donizetti put in quite a few quartets in the opera.  I recall in Lucia he also had quite a few ensemble pieces – including the famous sextet.  Now I wonder if this is something he did regularly in his operas.  He wrote about 60 operas, and I have seen about five of them, so we have a ways to go yet.

Of course the best known aria is “Una furtiva lagrima” sung by Nemorino.  As far as I can tell, it isn’t the most technically challenging tune in the opera.  And when placed in the context of the opera’s plot, it is a bit out of place.  But by golly, it is just a great tune.  The wistfulness expressed is just perfect against the bassoon accompaniment.  The downside is it may end up being the opera, thus overshadowing all the other arias.  I have to say Polanzani did a superb job, the last few notes just floated across softly and effortlessly into the hall.

Before the concert, Anne and I met up with my former boss Marc and his wife Ellen for dinner at Atlantic Seafood Grill.  I certainly enjoyed catching up with him after all these years (although we do see each other every now and then), and the food was great.

The New York Times reviewer describes the story in quite a bit of detail.  He pans the Met for putting out Netrebko and Donizetti as the season opener, but then proceeds to sing praises about every aspect of the performance.  He has some interesting observations about Netrebko and Polanzani’s voices.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano. September 22, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat T106, $69.50.)

… quasi una fantasia … for Piano and Groups of Instruments, Op. 27, No. 1 (1987-88) by Gyorgy Kurtag (b. 1926).
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1796-1803) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-13) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

This is the first week of the New York Philharmonic season.  Adding to that excitement is that the son-in-law of our friends will be starting his season with the orchestra, which is a big deal: hundreds of musicians audition for a spot on the roster.  I am sure quite a few tickets were sold to this cheering section.  Ellie and Kuau came along for the occasion also.  The four of us had dinner at LUCE prior to the concert, reasonably priced entrees that were quite good.  The restaurant is a stone’s throw from Lincoln Center; somehow we never noticed it before.

A few days prior I met up with my former boss Marc, another regular at these New York concert events.  We were talking about the “new” music that Gilbert is trying to introduce into the Philharmonic’s repertoire, and Marc said he doesn’t get it.  My response is I don’t appreciate it very much either.

Today’s opening piece is an example.  First of all, I have problem with these fancy titles coined by these modern artists.  Instead of simply calling it a fantasy, he had to call it by a more complicated Italian name, with dot-dot-dots in front and after the title.  The piece consists of four movements played without pause: (i) Introduzione (Largo); (ii) Presto minaccioso e lamentoso (Wie ein Traumeswirren) [Like a Nightmare]) (Molto agitato, sempre ppp); (iii) Recitativo (Grave, disperato); (iv) Aria – molto adagio (Lontano, calmo appena sentito [Distant, calm barely perceived]).  Why they need Italian, German, and English, I don’t know. The instrumentation consists of a long list of instruments, including several “echo” percussion pieces – whatever that means.  When we walked into the hall, we noticed two groups of percussion instruments at the rear, each with four chairs: evidently they hired many extras. There are other instruments on the first and second tiers also, in fact the only people on stage were the conductor, the solo pianist, and the timpanist.  I think there were like six or seven drums, some tuned closely in pitch (a semitone, maybe.)

In the Program Notes there is a reference to a poem being introduced by the fourth movement.  As if that isn’t bad enough, the last line of the poem isn’t complete!  I am embarrassed to say I didn’t get any of it.

There are a couple of redeeming features to the piece.  Foremost among them is the brevity, at only ten or so minutes.  My remark that for some pieces it takes longer to read up on than listening to applies here also.  The second is the music generally follows the markings listed in the program, so there wasn’t a lot of head scratching.  Third is the “stereo effect” generated by the placement of the instruments was interesting at times.  I wonder if these modern compositions (and composers) would ever get anywhere beyond an occasional performance here or there.  I would not actively avoid going to a concert if this piece is on the program again, but I suspect even if I wanted to, it would be difficult to find another performance.  [To provide a counter-argument, an obscure piece I heard in Hong Kong was actually played in Carnegie Hall.  In that instance there is a common element: Edo de Waart.]

The Beethoven piece was quite enjoyable, as any good rendition of the work would be.  The balance between the soloist and the orchestra was great at our seats.  The three movements are Allegro con brio, Largo, and Rondo: Allegro.  Ah, the simplicity.  For some reason Beethoven took a long time to complete this work, and the cadenza wasn’t completed until 1809.

A few days ago Chung Shu sent me several Youtube links to a Rite of Spring performance conducted by Boulez, with the assignment to delineate where each of the “movements” begins and ends.  The piece is thirty-some minutes in length, and is in two parts.  Part One: The Adoration of the Earth consists of Introduction, Augurs of Spring (Dance of the Adolescent Girls), Mock Abduction, Spring Rounds, Ritual of Rival Tribes, Procession of the Sage, The Adoration of the Earth (The Sage), and Dance of the Earth.  The Second Part (The Sacrifice) consists of Introduction, Mystical Cycle of the Young Girls, Glorification of the Chosen One, Evocation of the Ancestors, Ritual Action of the Ancestors, and Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One).  I also found a Boulez performance of the ballet on Youtube.  After working on it for a morning, I did manage to complete the assignment.  The ballet performance is interesting in that there was some spectacular horsemanship, but puzzling as you wouldn’t think it follows the plot at all – such as it is.

To my great dismay, I couldn’t quite follow the music during the actual concert itself.  What I should have done is to bring my homework write up with me.

Chung Shu posted a link to the New York Times review on an earlier performance, which I haven’t yet read: I don’t want to be biased by these influential critics.  I couldn’t avoid his posting saying the Rite of Spring was the highlight of the evening, though.

My experience isn’t nearly as sanguine.  The piece started okay, with the lovely mysterious tune played by the bassoon that made this piece so famous.  It however eventually degenerated into simply a competition between the sections to see who could play louder.  And given where we sit, they were pretty loud.  I had mentioned in a prior blog (when they were playing a Tchaikovsky symphony) that Gilbert seemed to be able to put an appropriate restraint on things.  He either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do that tonight.  This is the third time I have blogged about this piece, and I thought the other two times, conducted by Harding and Mehta, were better (this is from my blog entries, I certainly don’t remember the specific performances.)

So, the season for me isn’t off to a great start, although I am sure it’ll improve.

The New York Times review goes into a detailed description of Kurtag’s piece.  It is one of the most positive pieces ever written by a Times reviewer in recent memory.  We evidently listen for very different things.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Andrew Manze, conductor; Stephen Hough, piano. August 22, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra Left (Seat B3, $52.50).

Orchestra Suite No. 3 in D major (1731) (arr. Mendelssohn, Ed. David) by Bach.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor (1831) by Mendelssohn.
Symphony No. 41 in C major, K.551 (“Jupiter”) (1788) by Mozart.

We left our house at around 4:45 pm, having heard news that President Obama was going to be at Alice Tully Hall for a fundraiser this evening.  There were tons of problems with GWB (up to 2 hours delay) which overflowed into Lincoln Tunnel (1 hour).  Our way in through Holland Tunnel wasn’t too problematic, even with lingering effects from a stalled vehicle earlier.  We got to Ollie’s at around 6:15 pm.  Anne left right after dinner to collect the tickets while I took care of the bill.  We thought we would have time to make the 7 pm pre-concert recital, even though I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic since it was going to be Hough’s own 2010 composition.

But that wasn’t to be.  Traffic (vehicle and pedestrian) was blocked off for many of the intersections between Ollie’s and Lincoln Center so the President’s motorcade could zip right by, which it did at around 7:05 pm.  There was a lot of grumbling in the waiting crowd about how the fundraising event is wreaking havoc on people’s lives (the motorcade evidently started from JFK airport), so I assume some votes were lost.  To be fair, there was some scattered applause in the crowd also.  I was amazed how many police officers showed up, some in full combat gear, and I suspect there were snipers perched on all the corner rooftops – too bad I didn’t look up.

The upshot is we didn’t make it to the pre-concert.  I suspect many didn’t since approach from the north was not possible.  I actually reconnected with Anne at the corner I was stuck at: she was on the other side.

Our seats were in the first row (despite its B label), and we were a few yards away from the last row of the first violin section.  Human perception is an interesting thing, when I try to listen to the full orchestra (i.e., didn’t think about the individual musicians) that instrument would be dominant, but I managed to hear the three or four different first violins if I concentrated on doing so.  One would think loudness is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the source and the listener, but (for instance) the second violins could oftentimes be clearly heard.

That was a lot of pre-amble, onto the program for the evening.

The write-up (by Paul Schiavo) on the Bach Suite would be a dream for our friend David Y, it contains some rather interesting observations, some I excerpt below: (i) Mendelssohn did a lot to revive Bach; (ii) Mendelssohn made a lot of changes to the original score; (iii) There is debate whether it should be played by a solo violin; (iv) the trumpet in Bach’s day was more difficult to play; (iv) Ferdinand David was the principal violinist at the Gewandhaus Orchestra.  The movements of the Suite are quite typical: Overture, Air, Gavotte I and II, Bourree, and Gigue.  I enjoyed the performance very much.

Anne and I had a debate on whether we have seen Stephen Hough before.  I thought not, she was sure.  A review of this blog says at least not since 2005.  Our seats actually were quite good, we could hear him quite well without the piano’s sound being the dominant one, and we could see his hands flying over the keyboard.  The concerto is rather short, and consists of three movements played without stop: Molto allegro con fuoco, Andante, and Presto – Molto allegro e vivace.  The fast movements were quite demanding, my worry that he would slip a note kept me on the edge of my seat.  Just a beautiful performance of a beautiful concerto – and Mendelssohn wrote it when he was about 22.

Hough played a Chopin Nocturne as an encore.  As we read the program, we actually found out Hough’s composition actually has an interesting story behind it.  It is called “broken branches” and evokes Hough’s catholic faith.

Mozart’s last symphony must be one of his longest at about 40 minutes.  According to the program notes, Mozart discovered Bach’s music when he went to Vienna at age 25.  One could argue there was indeed a lot of Bach influence in this composition; or one could just say Mozart’s wrote more complicated music as he got older.  I did hear this in the “final trilogy” New York Philharmonic concert more than six years ago.  It is interesting how context makes something look.  My remark at the New York Philharmonic concert was that the music sounded “simple.”  Tonight, however, it sounded much more complex when compared against the Bach and Mendelssohn pieces.  Again, human perception is an interesting phenomenon.  The four movements are Allegro vivace, Andante cantabile, Menuetto, and Molto allegro.

Anne’s conclusion is: the Mostly Mozart performances are definitely better than those of Orpheus’s.  I tend to agree, although the Orpheus Orchestra does Mozart quite well.

A few words on the conductor Manze.  He is quite animated, and we could hear him grunt quite often. I think the orchestra responded very well, although sometimes not as crisply as I would like.

By the time we left, the President was long gone.  There were still quite a few officers milling around the area.  We got back at about 11 pm.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Osmo Vanska, conductor; Rudolf Buchbinder, piano. August 15, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra Left (Seat J5, $46.50).

Pre-concert Recital
Sonata No. 8 in C minor (“Pathetique”) (1797) by Beethoven.

Symphony No. 32 in G major, K.318 (1779) by Mozart.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor (c. 1800-03) by Beethoven.
Symphony in C major (“Great”) (c. 1825-28) by Schubert (1797-1828).

This time we got our discount tickets at the Atrium.  While they sent out an email the day before saying tickets were available, we weren’t sure there would be any left since we would get there only a couple of hours before the concert.  We were prepared to just have dinner and then go back to NJ, though.  The seats we got actually were very good, with a good view of the piano but not so close that it would be the dominant instrument we would hear, as we did at the last concert.  We also made it to the preconcert recital, that meant we only had about 15 minutes to purchase and gulp down a sandwich at the Expresso Bar.

The Pathetique sonata probably ranks as the top 5 most popular work of that genre by Beethoven.  (Let me guess, Moonlight, Waldstein, and Appassionata being another 3.)  What I didn’t realize was that it was written relatively early in Beethoven’s life.  It has three movements: Grave – Allegro di molto e con brio; Adagio cantabile; and Rondo: Allegro.  To my ears, the piece is so familiar that there probably aren’t that many new and inventive ways to play it.  That is mostly true of tonight’s performance, except the soloist sometimes placed a stronger than usual emphaisis on the left hand when it had the melody, a bit much perhaps.  A good rendition of a Beethoven sonata is always enjoyable, as was this performance.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 may have been intended as an overture to the opera Zaide, which Mozart never finished, and was instead used as an overture for an opera by Bianchi (evidently with Mozart’s blessing.)  That may explain why it was relatively short at an advertised nine minutes, and that it was played without a break, although there were several sections.  The piece has a symmetry to it that was rather easy to catch, and rather interesting.  The other noteworthy aspect was the use of a relatively large orchestra, including flutes, trumpets, and four horns.  There is some doubt if Mozart wrote the part for the timpani, though.  I got all this from David Wright’s informative notes, which helped in my appreciation of this composition.

The piece turned out to be shorter than I expected.  The gentleman sitting next to me observed that I was looking at my watch and asked me how long it was.  Seven minutes, I think.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is quite popular, and the best thing to do is just to sit back and enjoy it.  Its three movements are Allegro con brio, Largo, and Rondo: Allegro.  Buchbinder took it at a relatively fast pace, and the orchestra sometime had trouble keeping up.  By and large I did manage to sit back and enjoy it.

If I were asked how long Schubert’s longest symphony was, I would have guessed (with no basis) forty minutes.  Turns out tonight’s symphony is close to an hour in length; it is not called “Great” for no reason.  It has four movements: (i) Andante – Allegro ma non troppo – Piu moto; (ii) Andante con moto; (iii) Scherzo: Allegro vivace – Trio; and (iv) Finale: Allegro vivace.  Usually I think of Mahler or Bruckner when a symphony of this duration is mentioned, and those would be written decades later.  While no doubt considered epic in its day – indeed it might have been rejected by the Vienna Philharmonic for its length and difficulty, and Schubert substituted the “Little” in its stead – it is relatively easy to follow.  You don’t hear the complex harmonies or the wanderings that characterize the “modern” symphonies, instead the signature Schubert techniques of propulsion (my term for moving the music along) and key changes are abundantly clear.  It is interesting to listen for these techniques, and I am still in awe of how adeptly themes in major and minor keys are woven together.  Despite the Annotator’s claim that not one note can be taken out of this tightly written piece, it felt a bit long.

A couple of additional observations (added after this blog was first posted).  One is the conductor took all the repeats, and sometimes had to fumble through the score to find the right place.  No worries though, he managed to get through without any problems.  The other more serious comment is there didn't seem to be much breathing in this symphony.  Every movement seems to be one long breath, which for a 14-minute movement can be a bit exasperating for people like me.  I listened to another Schubert symphony on my iPod, certainly there were breaks in the phrasing.  I am listening to "The Great" by the Vienna Philharmonic as I type this paragraph.  So far (about 6 minutes into  the first movement) there hasn't been any yet.

I do have a small issue with the otherwise excellent Notes, again written by David Wright.  There seems to be an obsession with the key signatures, especially in the case of Beethoven.  This kind of analysis may be appreciated by someone with perfect pitch.  My pitch is pretty good (often perfect when it comes to tuning a violin), yet phrases like “the remote key of E major” do not mean much to me.

This year’s Mostly Mozart series of concerts has worked out quite well.  Ticket prices (after discount) are reasonable, traffic into and out of town not that bad, and the performances have been enjoyable.  We have tickets to another one next week.  If they are offering more discounted concerts …

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Louis Langree, conductor; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. August 10, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra Center (Seat D111, $50).

Musique funebre (Muzyka zalobna) (1958) by Witold Lutoslawski (1931-1994).
Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K.543 (1788) by Mozart (1756-1791).

We wanted to get into the city early for the pre-concert recital, but missed it by about five minutes, the usual summer Friday afternoon traffic being the culprit this time.  That is too bad as I was looking forward to hearing Brahms' Intermezzos (Op. 117).  On the plus side, we did find off street parking on 65th, for free.

Our seats in Row D gave us a great view of the musicians in the front, but not much visibility beyond that.  We could hear the individual instruments in the orchestra (or most of them, anyway), which is a good thing.  My comment on the concert we heard on Wednesday was that the orchestra sounded soft, being closer made it better, but the volume was still on the soft side.  The downside is with the solo piano, the orchestra was completely overwhelmed.

The first two pieces of the program were all written in the mid 20th century, which doesn’t make a lot of sense for a Mostly Mozart concert.  The only connection I could possibly made is the there is supposedly some birds and crickets effects in the Bartok piece (more on that later.)  The Program Annotator for tonight’s program is Paul Schiavo.  He also did a good job with the write-ups.

I had not encountered Lutoslawski’s music before (not having heard of him probably was a primary reason,) and didn’t know what to expect.  He conceived the work as a memorial to Bela Bartok, and the music – basically for a string orchestra – does fit the bill.  I would agree with the Program Notes’ statement that he succeeded splendidly in using modern compositional methods in a clear and readily apprehended way.  The four parts of the piece were played without interruption: Prologue, Metamorphoses, Apogee, and Epilogue, with the first and last parts like an arc encasing the middle sections.  In any case, the music was indeed quite accessible to a first-time listener, in my case using Schiavo’s write-up as a guide.

Bela Bartok completed the piano concerto shortly before his death, hoping his wife could earn some money performing it: there is probably a poignant story behind the matter-of-fact narrative in the Program Notes.  The first two movements (Allegretto and Andante religioso) are on the relatively straightforward side, making me wonder what Bartok was thinking when he wrote this.  The lack of virtuosic requirement on the performer is negated in the third movement (Allegro vivace) which includes many difficult passages with a lot of flourish thrown in.  The annotation in this instance has a couple of comments on the second movement that I find a bit puzzling: it calls the second movement “in every way the heart of the Concerto” which I would take issue with (admittedly after hearing it only once.)  The other comment about its A-B-A design while technically correct is close to non-informative, since the second A is very different from the first A.  I didn’t get the evocations of bird and insect sounds in the B section; Anne did.

As I said earlier, the piano dominated the performance, probably because of the acoustics at our seats.  The soloist certainly enjoyed himself, and he put in a delightful performance.

To me, Bartok’s music is generally easy to understand, and this one is particularly so.  I suppose the program design folks at Mostly Mozart picked these two pieces for their ease to understand.  If that is so, kudos to them.

We have heard the Mozart symphony several times before, including the time New York Philharmonic played all three in the “final trilogy,” of which this symphony is the first.  I still remember using the phrase “Mozart-fatique” to describe the experience of listening to three symphonies in a row.  There was no such problem tonight, the orchestra put in a spirited and crisp performance.  The four movements of the symphony are: Adagio – Allegro, Andante con coto, Menuetto: Allegretto, and Allegro.

I did notice a violinist who also plays in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a group I have mixed feelings about.  Going over my prior blog entries, I find an entry where the Orpheus Orchestra also performed this piece.  My remark was that the performance “was not particularly noteworthy.”  I can’t help but wonder if this particular violinist enjoys playing the piece with or without a conductor.  She did pay a lot of attention to the conductor, though.

Langree certainly did his job with gusto; a bit much at times, in my opinion.  I couldn't help but notice how crisp his pants looked: the "Maestro" episode of Seinfeld kept flashing in my head.

Our trip home was uneventful.  We got back at around 10:45 pm, and that included a side-trip to fill up the gas tank.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Susanna Malkki, conductor; Garrick Ohlsson, piano. August 8, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra Left (Seat S104, $50).

Rendering (1989) by Schubert/Luciano Berio.
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major (“Emperor”) (1810) by Beethoven.

We came back from Hong Kong on Monday, so I was a bit apprehensive whether we could stay awake for the concert.  The fear was compounded by my lingering cough which kept me up both nights I have been home.  It turned out okay, though.  I was tired, but managed to stay awake during the entire concert.  Anne did doze off towards the end of the first half.

We read in the Program Notes a description by Berio of the piece Rendering: “This restoration is made along the lines of the modern restoration of frescoes that aims at reviving the old colors without however trying to disguise the damage that time has caused, often leaving inevitable empty patches in the composition (for instance as in the case of Giotto in Assisi).” Fair enough, and I can indeed picture what such a restored painting would look like.

Alas, it is not that straightforward when it comes to music.  Foremost amongst the many reasons why it is different with music is when it comes to restoration of a painting, we are talking about a completed work that faded with time, and the restorer’s objective is to bring back as much as she can while leaving blank the portions she isn’t sure of.  What is done with the Schubert piece wasn’t quite that: Schubert didn’t finish the piece and we therefore do not have a case of lost notes a restorer is trying to reconstruct.  A better equivalent would be someone taking Giotto’s sketches and trying to make a complete painting out of it.  Here I have to take a bit of issue with how it was done: in filling in the missing pieces, Berio did it with his own style.  When a restorer sees two disjoint segments, the thing to do is to draw a straight line between them rather than create a new idea to link them together.  And we have a lot of that here.

Enough analysis, let’s move on to the performance.  Given our seats, I expected great acoustics (or at least relatively good acoustics, this is Avery Fisher Hall, after all) but was surprised at how thin the orchestra sounded.  Perhaps it was due to the placement of the group: the stage was brought forward a bit to allow for seating behind the orchestra; perhaps it was due to this decorative “thing” hanging over the orchestra (come to think of it, it may be an acoustic thing, and if so it certainly didn’t do the job.)

The music itself is quite interesting.  To the uninitiated, which I imagine would be most of the audience, the music can either be considered a modern piece with classical elements thrown in, or a classical piece with modern elements thrown in, and it is more than just a juxtaposition of the two genres.  In my opinion, the first two movements (Allegro, Andante) are more the former, and the last movement (Allegro) the latter.  I wonder if this is due to the availability of original Schubert material with regard to the three movements.  The main contrast between Schubert and Berio, as I hear it, is that Schubert’s segments are much more solid compared to the shimmering effect of Berio’s segments.

While it is fun to analyze music this way, I would much rather hear material that appeals directly to whichever part of my brain appreciates music.  Of course many would say it’s the same part of the brain that does analysis and appreciates music.  In any case, most people would have only limited exposure to this piece – I can’t imagine going to another performance of this piece even if I wanted to – and would soon forget about it.

The Beethoven concerto certainly didn’t suffer from these issues.  It is straightforward, familiar, and always enjoyable.  The music speaks for itself, appeals to the listener directly, and moves forward at a pace that doesn’t allow time for a deep analysis.  Its three movements are: Allegro, Adagio un poco moto, and Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo.

If you consider the elements of Ohlsson’s performance - tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and overall architecture – you would rate them all high.  When taken together, however, they do not quite translate to a memorable performance.  That seems to be my beef with him in my prior write-ups on his performance.  The other blemish would be in tonight’s performance the piano playing dominated the orchestra, which I found somewhat surprising, and attribute it to more than simply acoustics.

Which leads to the subject of the conductor.  Susanna Malkki is Finnish, a former cellist who started doing full time conducting about 15 years ago.  One would root for woman conductors (two others come to mind: Marin Alsop and Xian Zhang) in this male-dominated profession.  She seems very mechanical in her movements, and at times I worried if she was in total control – this is a statement about her and the orchestra.  She has worked with some big name orchestras, though.

A couple of additional remarks.  Ohlsson played as encore a very familiar Chopin piece – Waltz No. 1, Op. 18.  Also, the annotator David Wright’s write-ups are enjoyable to read and sheds considerable light on the music, especially for the Schubert/Berio piece.  He writes for the audience, not for his peers.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Vienna Piano Trio. 7/18/2012.

Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University, Row 1, Balcony Center (free).

Trio members: Wolfgang Redik, violin; Matthias Gredler, cello; Stefan Mendl, piano.

Piano Trio in A Major, Hob XV/18 by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).
Piano Trio in A Minor by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).
Piano Trio in B flat Major D. 898, Op. 99 by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

I again met up with David and Vivien for this concert.  Anne is overseas so I went to Princeton by myself.  It was raining hard, with the area drenched by a thunderstorm caused a temperature drop (per reading inside my car) from over 100F to the mid 70s in less than 30 minutes earlier in the afternoon.  Traffic was bad, but not particularly so for this time of the day.  David and Vivien got to Princeton early and picked up the (free) tickets, and we had dinner at Panera Bread before going over to the venue.

There were quite a few empty seats in the balcony, probably because some people decided not to venture out due to the heavy rain.  Which is a pity as this was a great concert.  There was a lot of music squeezed into the program, which, including the encore, lasted more than two hours.

I don’t go to chamber music events that often – I joke with David that 80% have been with him at these Princeton events – I certainly don’t feel I understand the “genre” well.  Regardless, I thought there was something un-Haydnesque about the Haydn piece: the techniques, the dynamics, the harmonies, are not what I would usually associate with Haydn.  Of course my knowledge of Haydn is limited by-and-large to his symphonies, string quartets, and a few choral pieces, but nonetheless … The three movements of the piece are: Allegro moderato, Andante, and Allegro.  It was brilliantly played, and got the evening off to a great start.

The Ravel piece, in my opinion was the most interesting of the three performed tonight.  It has four movements: Modere, Pantoum – Assez Vif, Passacaille – Tres Large, Final – Anime.  I don’t know French, and can only guess at the meaning.  No matter, it appears to be a rather difficult piece, and again was beautifully played by the trio.

Ravel supposedly was a bit frustrated people called Bolero his most famous work.  That complaint probably had a lot of merit to it.  I did a quick review of my blog entries, and over the last few years I have heard quite a few pieces of his, and – per my notes – I enjoyed quite a few of them (notable except being “Mother Goose.”)  If you ask me what I remember of yesterday’s piece, not much – as evidenced by what I have written about it so far.  But, if you ask me what Bolero sounds like, I can probably tap out the snare drum rat-tat-tat correctly.

Schubert’s Trio is the longest at a bit over 40 minutes.  It is very classical in structure, complete with theme, development, and modulation.  The four movements are: (i) Allegro moderato, (ii) Andante, un poco mosso, (iii) Scherzo: Allegro, and (iv) Rondo: Allegro vivace.   In and of itself it is a great piece, however, it felt a bit light-weight when compared to Ravel’s work.  Which probably makes for an interesting programming question: why not flip the two halves of the program around, and have the concert end on the more exciting Ravel.  Not that the energy level of the performers was sapped by the time they got to the end, but the music did come across somewhat that way.

While writing this blog, I looked at my iTunes library and found out to my surprise (dismay) that I actually have a recording of the Schubert piece.  Didn’t I say I don’t listen to chamber music that much?  In fairness, the first movement did sound a bit familiar …

The audience applause was very enthusiastic, justifiably so.  The Trio played an encore: a slow movement from a piece by Schumann.

A few words about the Trio, gleamed from the short writeup in the handout for the evening.  It has been around for about 20 years, and has an active performance calendar.  The members – all male – are all middle-aged, not the usual age of chamber music players that perform at these Princeton summer concerts.  The two string instruments are Guadagninis (1772 violin, 1752 cello.)  One would think the tone and volume should be quite similar.  Not so, at least to my ears, the violin’s sound is much more brilliant, and the cello is at times overwhelmed.  I wonder if my hearing is what it used to be, or that there is quite a bit of learning to do …

One of those days I will be able to write a “real” chamber music review, but not today.