Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Quebec - Bernard Labadie, conductor. March 25, 2012.

Issac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Dress Circle Center Right (Seat DD10, $47.)

St. John Passion, BWV 245 (1724; rev. 1725, 1732, 1749) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

Ian Bostridge, Tenor; Neal Davies, Bass-Baritone; Karina Gauvin, Soprano; Damien Guillon, Countertenor; Nicholas Phan, Tenor; Hanno Muller-Nrachmann, Bass-Baritone.

Between Chung Shu and I we somehow got six tickets to this concert.  Despite all the telephone calls he made, only four of us made it to New York City on this Sunday afternoon (Chung Shu, Agnes, Anne & I).  We went after church, good thing traffic was a breeze, so we made it there in good time.  Chung Shu actually managed to sell the two extra tickets, for about half their original price.  A bit surprising as there were quite a few empty seats; in fact Chung Shu and Agnes moved to our section after Part I.

Bach wrote this piece for use on a Good Friday.  Even though we had heard a couple of Passions before, I was still somewhat surprised that it covers only the last week or so of Jesus’s life (it should, if one had thought about it.)  We heard Bach’s other Passion, based on Matthew.  The Program Notes describes this as a darker and more fiery brother, to me it was at least very different.  Not being a Bach scholar, I certainly do not recognize his entire range of style; still, this piece sounds quite different from what I thought Bach would sound like.  The most notable difference would be the stress on harmony relative to the use of counterpoint; perhaps it is there, but I didn’t get it.

The structure of the composition is quite similar to St. Matthew’s.  You have the Evangelist (John in this case), Jesus, and other characters, who had recitatives exclusively.  The choruses would sing the part of the crowd.  Chorales would be hymns that tend to be on the reverent side (this is the Passion, after all.)  Most of the text was taken from the Gospel of John and Lutheran hymns.  Bach also quoted from poetry and other gospels to round out the libretto.  Evidently scholars don’t know if Bach used a librettist for this work; he did tinker with several revisions.

The Passion consists of two parts, with 40 numbers.  Some of those numbers are in turn divided into multiple parts (up to seven).  All this add up to a rather long program at about 2:15 hours.  It didn’t feel that long though, even though I did have trouble every now and then to keep my concentration.  The Program Notes also describes the technique used by Bach in some of these numbers to generate the desired effects.  I always think there is a bit of oversell in these observations, unless the composer specifically describes what informs a particular passage.

I am typing this sitting inside a plane (en-route to Hong Kong), thus cannot refer to anything except the Playbill I brought along.  I heard the St. Matthew Passion performed by the New York Philharmonic where they had a huge orchestra (two, in fact), and a large choral section.  For today’s concert there were fewer than 30 instruments, and 31 singers.  Included in the instruments are a viola da gamba and an archluth (which looks somewhat like a lute.)  The string instruments are “modern” but the bows are period.  The most prominent effect is a subtler sound, which in my opinion doesn’t work very well in Carnegie Hall.  In my view the performance suffered from being from a small ensemble.  A purist would argue orchestras were small in Bach’s days, but I suspect the church isn’t as cavernous as the Stern auditorium.

Ian Bostridge as the Evangelist had the most critical role.  He has an amazing range and did uniformly well.  The other soloists were also good, but their roles are relatively limited compared to the Evangelist.  Perhaps it was how the choir members were arranged, perhaps it was the small number of singers, their performance was just so-so.

If you ask someone what hymn they remember from St. Matthew Passion, many would tell you “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”  I didn’t know most of the tunes from St. John, but one of them (“Within my heart’s foundation …”) is actually quite familiar.

On the way back, we were talking about the possibility of trying the chorales ourselves.  I don’t know if I can find 20 or so people interested in doing this, but I certainly intend to buy a copy of the score to study the piece in a bit more detail.

The New York Times writeup on the concert is here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Recital – Vadim Repin, Violin; Itamar Golan, Piano. March 17, 2012.

Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat L112, $60.)

Sonata for Violin and Piano by Leos Janacek (1854-1928).
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1927) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).
Sonata No. 2 in G major for Violin and Piano, Op. 13 by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907).
Poeme, Op. 25 by Ernest Chausson (1855-1899).
Tzigane by Ravel.

For me Repin will forever be remembered as the violinist who broke a string during a performance with the New York Philharmonic: it was the Tchaikovsky concerto, if memory serves.  He is of course also a brilliant violinist, although I haven’t had the chance to hear him very often.  When I found out half price tickets were available for this concert, I decided to get them, even though we would have attended a concert the day before.

Ellie would come up from Jersey City to meet us for dinner, and Anne was in Flushing earlier that afternoon, so we all got to Ed’s Chowder House via different means – although I did meet up with Anne before we parked the car.  Ellie was delayed, so dinner was a bit rushed; still good.  We tried to get her to join us for the concert, but she decided not to.

This was the first time I can remember ever going to Alice Tully Hall.  It has a seating capacity of 1086, not nearly as small as I would expect.  Having been renovated just a couple of years ago, the seats have a bit more leg room than the Met Opera House or Avery Fisher, and are quite comfortable.  The abundant presence of wood and the spikes on the back of the stage would make one think the hall should have great acoustics.  It turns out the sound was just so-so, even for our seats which are quite close to the performers.

The Program Notes are individual write-ups of the pieces from different sources, so there is not a consistency to how the descriptions were approached.  The way the program was set up, one could say the first half was more chamber music, with the pianist playing an equally important role as the violinist, and the second half was more a showcase of the violinist’s virtuosity, even though the pianist would have his work cut out for him.

Janacek wrote the bulk of the sonata in 1913 and 1914, but the first world war intervened, and by the time he completed it in 1921, the politics of the region had changed drastically: the Russian Army had marched into Hungary, and its incursion into Moravia was imminent.  The Sonata contains Moravian folksongs, and a high piano tremolo passage represents the Russian Army’s entering Hungary.  On first listening, it is difficult to read into what Janacek was trying to say.  Technically, the piece was difficult, but not extraordinarily so.

A couple of factoids about this sonata.  It was Janacek’s third violin sonata, but the first two are lost.  Also, one of the movement’s tranquil passage (a lyrical Ballada) was written as a separate piece before the war.  The Program Notes doesn’t tell us what the movements are; Wikipedia describes the four movements as Con moto, Balada, Allegretto, and Adagio.  I heard only three distinct sections, perhaps the Balada and Allegretto movements are done without pause?

Like the Janacek sonata, Ravel’s work is also about 20 minutes long.  The Program Notes describes the three movements as Allegretto, Bluesy, and Allegro.  The first movement starts simple enough, but places more and more demand on the performers.  The second movement is indeed Gershwinian blue, with a lot of sliding to reach a note typical of jazz music.  I thought there was a bit of intonation problem, though.  What is amazing is that there is a lot of what I would call violent pizzicato in the music.  I was wondering if there would be another string breaking incident, and a bit worried as there was no replacement violin in sight.  The third movement is technically challenging, with lots of fast 16th note runs, double octaves, flying staccatos, and other virtuoso idioms.  I think many in the audience held their breath for much longer than usual, I certainly did.

The applause was enthusiastic, to put it mildly, and well-deserved.  What I didn’t expect was there was sporadic clapping after each movement.  It got to be more of a problem as the concert progressed.  Later in the program several people clapped during a break in Grieg's first movement, causing quite a bit of “sheeeshing” from the audience.  Different performers react differently to this, these two guys just kept playing.  I think Lincoln Center should start putting in these notices asking the audience to applaud only after the completion of an entire work; the New York crowd is not that sophisticated, after all.

Grieg’s most popular violin concerto probably is his first.  Even though I have the second on my iPod, it is not familiar to me.  It was composed in 1867 and dedicated to Johan Svendsen.  The movements are Lento doloroso – Allegro vivace, Allegretto tranquillo, and Allegro animato.  The second movement is classical in its ABA format, and thus quite easy to follow.  For the uninitiated, the other two movements should simply be enjoyed as virtuoso pieces.  (It is during the first movements that some people applauded.)

Chausson’s Poeme, written in 1889, is a standard piece in the violinist repertoire.  Originally written for violin and orchestra, Chausson himself adapted it for violin and piano.  Musically it is simple, starting soft, getting loud, and ending soft again.  Technically it is quite a different matter, and Repin put in a most enjoyable performance.

Most violinist would consider Tzigane (which means Gypsy Music) unplayable.  It starts simple enough, but soon calls for trills in double stops (I won’t even know how to begin to practice this.)  The tempo eventually becomes frantic, with the violin doing rapid harmonics.  Against what the music would sound like in my ear (if I had the music), I would say Repin put in a rather sloppy performance.  But no one really cared, it was just amazing to hear someone attempt such fireworks on the violin, and occasionally pulling it off.

It turns out I have a recording of Tzigane by Itzhak Perlman.  I am sure sound track engineering of music played in a recording studio had a lot to do with it: it sounded much cleaner.

Repin played two popular violin pieces as encores.  Frustratingly I don’t remember their titles.  Enjoyable, and probably a good way to let the audience down from its earlier frenzy.  We therefore didn’t get to leave until about 9:45 pm, making this a rather lengthy concert.  The drive home was very straightforward, with very little traffic, especially for a Saturday night.

It is interesting that during chamber music performances one always hears blemishes: a missed note here, a slightly off-pitch sound there.  This was the same with the last violin/piano recital I went to with Zukerman and Bronfman playing.  Also, the program then (Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms) was one where one enjoys the music more than the virtuosity of tonight’s concert.  Both Repin and Zukerman play Guarneri violins, sometimes you wish Repin used a Stradivarius tonight so we could get a more brilliant sound.

A few remarks about the pianist Golan.  Lithuania-born, raised in Israel since he was one, he now teaches at the Paris Conservatory after a stint at the Manhattan School of Music.  He was at least a head shorter than Repin, prompting the thinking that the two had the two instruments mixed up.  But he kept pace with Repin’s theatrics with his own flair.  Many times he would fight with the page-turner (who sometimes had trouble.)  The way he takes a bow is like someone about to get into a duel: never take your eye off the opponent.  I am sure he holds his own as a piano soloist, but alas for this concert it is all Repin.

I am glad we decided to go.  And we sure did get our money’s worth.

Today we found the review in the New York Times.  The reviewer is brutal, saying the Tzigane ended in a train wreck.  He didn't say what the encore pieces were either.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

New York Philharmonic – David Zinman, conductor; Gil Shaham, violin. March 16, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat T107, $70.)

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1799-1800) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Concerto funebre for Solo Violin and String Orchestra (1939, rev. 1959) by Hartmann (1905-63).
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, Sinfonia eroica (1802-04) by Beethoven.

Today’s concert started at 11 am, one of the several matinees NY Philharmonic will have this season.  For us, it means we had to leave a bit after 9 am.  Traffic was surprising light, we even had time to enjoy a cup of Starbuck’s before we went to the concert hall.

This is the third and last of the “Modern Beethoven” series conducted by Zinman.  While the first and third symphonies were written within a few years of each other, the difference between them was quite substantial.

The first symphony, as described by the Program Notes, is quite Haydnesuque and Mozartian.  That is especially true of the first three movements (Adagio molto – Allegro con brio; Andante cantabile con moto; and Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace.)  Actually, the first movement could easily confuse the uneducated listener (that would be me) as being written by Mozart, light, lots of repeated notes; only give-away would be Beethoven reused the themes more than Mozart would.  However, the last movement (Finale: Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace) was definitely Beethoven.  So, instead of describing the symphony as showing Beethoven characteristics in embryonic form – as the Program Notes does – I would say in one composition Beethoven announced himself to be the radical composer that he was.  The winds play an important part in this symphony, and the audience acknowledged the great job they did when they were asked to take a bow.

The third symphony is one of Beethoven’s more popular ones, and I remember both playing it at Cornell and studying it in my theory class.  What I didn’t realize was this was the longest symphony ever written at that time.  (Beethoven’s longest has to be his ninth at about 70 minutes.)  The four movements of the symphony are: Allegro con brio; Marcia funebre: Adagio assai; Scherzo: Allegro vivace; Finale: Allegro molto – Poco andante – Presto.  The third movement had so much energy to it that a few in the audience actually applauded.  I was surprised that the fourth movement didn’t sound as familiar to me as I expected.

I was just remarking last week that the New Jersey audience was slapped in the face with a note reminding them not to applaud in between movements …

Many people know that this symphony was written with Napoleon in mind, but Beethoven got very upset when Napoleon crowned himself emperor and instead dedicated this to his patron Prince Lobkowitz.  What I didn’t know was Ludwig, Luigi, and Louis are different ways of saying the same name.  And the dedications were written in Italian – perhaps not so surprising considering they use Italian in the musical notation.

So, in the last three weeks I heard six of Beethoven’s symphonies.  I wondered at the outset if I would get an overload.  I am glad to report that I did not.  I think I am ready for the three missing.  Indeed we just got tickets for the Ninth (NJSO playing in Newark Sacred Heart Church in May.)  On the other hand, I must say I didn’t find these performances particularly inspiring; not bad, but not inspiring.  Which brings me to the series description of “Modern Beethoven.”  The New York Times reviewer said (something like) “of course no one would say the same old Beethoven.”  Actually there is nothing wrong with calling it that, or “Rediscovering Beethoven” to make it sound better.

The size of the orchestra was different for the two symphonies.  A much reduced set of string players was used for the first symphony.  I am sure one reason is that the woodwinds need to come out more; but are there others?

Beethoven composed his first eight Symphonies in the span of about 12 years, and he started to go deaf with the fourth.  I wish they had included the ninth so one could appreciate how the composer grew as a symphonic composer.

We heard the Violin Concerto by Karl Amadeus Hartmann last April with Arabella Steinbacher and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and I came away not particularly impressed.  I appreciated the composition a bit more on hearing it a second time.  What I said about the piece technically is still true, although Shaham played with a much broader dynamic range than Steinbacher did.  His Strad didn’t sound as good as I thought it should, though.  Hartmann described his work as Chorale – Adagio – Allegro – Chorale, with the last movement “the lyrical melody of the second chorale at the end has the character of a slow progress.”  Whatever that means, it shouldn't mean it would be over in two minutes, should it?

After the concert, we grabbed a light lunch at Ollie’s and made the discounted 4-hour parking window for the garage.  Coming home wasn’t a problem either.

The New York Times Review finds more connection between Beethoven and Hartmann than I could.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. March 13, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony (Seat A117, $92.50).

Story.  The setting of the story is Russia in the late 1600s.  Interweaved into the story are three main characters: Ivan Khovansky and the streltskys, Dosifei and the Old Believers, and Murfa. After supporting the installation of Ivan and Peter as joint rulers, Ivan Khovansky and his son Andrei lead the streltskys to rebel against them.  Towards the end of the story, Ivan Khovansky is killed inside his residence, but the streltskys are pardoned by Tsar Peter.  During the same time period, the Old Believers are being persecuted, and the Imperial Court has decreed they be killed.  Instead of surrendering, their leader Dosifei leads them to a mass suicide by setting fire to themselves.  Murfa, an Old Believer, has some mythical powers that allow her to predict the future, including that of Prince Vasily Golitsyn, lover of the Tsars sister Sophia.  Golitsyn tries to drown Murfa after she gives him a horrific reading, but to no avail.  Murfa is in love with Andrei Khovansky and eventually gets him to commit suicide with her and the other Old Believers.

Conductor – Kirill Petrenko. A Public Scribe – John Easterlin; Shaklovity, a boyar – George Gagnidze; Prince Ivan Khovansky, leader of the streltsy, an Old Believer – Anatoli Kotscherga; Emma, a young girl from the German quarter – Wendy Bryn Harmer; Prince Andrei Khovansky, son of Ivan Khovansky – Misha Didyk; Marfa, Andrei’s fiancĂ©e, an Old Believer – Olga Borodina; Dosifei, spiritual leader of the Old Believers – Ildar Abdrazakov; Prince Vasily Golitsyn, a statesman; Susanna – Maria Gavrilova.

The Program Front Page also tells us that the Opera’s libretto was written by the composer, the orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich, and the final scene by Igor Stravinsky.  Mussorgsky died at age 42 partly due to his alcoholism, and he left behind an incomplete manuscript that was for the most part unorchestrated.

The story is based on the real-life character Prince Ivan Khovansky, with the term “Khovanschchina” meaning Khovansky Intrigue, referring to his plan to stage a coup.  The historical accounts are complicated enough, and on top of that was Mussorgsky’s effort to weave different stories together, resulting in a rather unwieldy plot.  If I had just copied the synopsis found in the Program Notes over onto this blog, I don’t think things would have been that much clearer.  In any case, Anne’s take of the Program Notes is that Russia itself is the protagonist, and the opera shows how history claims its victims who are powerless to stop its inexorable march.  And, as far as I could tell, there is no answer to the question of “who won?”  To echo what the Program Notes says about the chorus, instead of the “one voice” we get from the chorus in Nabucco (signifying the struggle of the Hebrew people,) here we have different groups with different objectives: the strelskys, the Muscovites, the Old Believers all seemed to want different things.  A storyline that complicated may work in the hands of a master like Tolstoy, but I am not sure Mussorgsky could ever pull it off.  And, in the case of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Prokofiev in turning the epic into an opera had to simplify it drastically.

The overture is quite unexpected, sounding tonal and pleasant.  But my hope that this would be a performance with memorable tunes was soon quashed: the music quickly degenerated into a fragmented, dissonant sound used by Mussorgsky to represent the chaos and darkness of the story.  Sprinkled throughout the opera were the many attempts that tried to go “positive,” these were quickly overwhelmed by the dark mood permeating throughout.  One exception, of course, was the Persian dance in Scene 4, but Ivan Khovansky was shot at the end of the scene.  All this should work very well in theory, and it evidently did work for many people, if what I overheard what they said during the intermissions was any indication.  For Anne and I, alas, that simply meant we had to fight to stay awake.  You get some idea of what is going on, but there are many gaps that leave one scratching one’s head.  For instance, I just realized that Ivan Khovansky was killed on order of the tsars’ sister Sophia, with whom he was aligned for a while.  During the performance, I had no idea who did it; and I still don't understand why.

The conductor and most soloists are from Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine.  So I assume the Russian was perfect, of course the only word I can make out is “Nyet.”  We had heard Ildar Abdrazakov several times, including the roles of Henry VIII in Anna Bolena and Attila.  And we had seen Petrenko conduct a couple of times before also.  In any case, the singing was uniformly good.  I especially enjoyed Olga Borodina as Marfa.  I am still a bit puzzled by how sometimes the sound would come across really loud at certain locations on the stage.  For tonight it was on the right close to a balcony-like structure.

The set used was designed in 1985.  While it still works, as it should, it is interesting that the Met didn’t try to refresh it for this run.  Perhaps they ran out of money after spending a great fortune on the Ring Cycle?  One would expect to see the Onion Domes of the Krelim if the Scene is the Red Square, and one would be disappointed.  What we got was a close up view of the columns.  The immolation scene leaves a lot to the audience’s imagination.  There is this pile of wood in the middle, surrounded by a hundred or so Old Believers holding candles in their hands.  A bright light and smoke would tell the audience that the pile is on fire.  Basically the same concept as the scene in Gotterdammerung, but not to as good an effect.  They might just as well learn something from the new Ring production.

The concert started at 7 pm and didn’t end until about 11:25 pm.  With two intermissions and several scene changes I would guess the opera itself was a bit over three hours.  I suspect unless this is turned into something on the scale of the Ring, lengthening the opera by an hour or so won’t help with clarifying what is happening, given how discombobulated the story is at this stage.

There are some moments that someone fully engaged with this opera will find poignant, but I don’t really get them.  I would have enjoyed the opera a lot more if it is not trying to say so many things at the same time.

The New York Times reviewer loved the opera, calling it “one of the best things the Met has done this season.”  Sounds very much like the people sitting around me, including the lady sitting next to me who seemed clueless most of the time (from the questions she was asking her companion) but ended up applauding very enthusiastically.  And now that I have read the review, another person was just quoting what she read!  I do like the reviewer’s description of the Persian dance: “bland new choreography.”

The reviewer Zachary Wolfe also says Gotterdammerung left him "cold," but he didn't write the review of that opera for the Times, Tommasini did.  I guess it is not surprising that different people get different takes from the same performance.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

New York Philharmonic – David Zinman, conductor; Alisa Weilerstein, cello. March 9, 2012.

NJPAC, Newark, NJ, Tier 1 (Seat D5, $60.)

Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1811-12) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra, Op. 22 (1945) by Barber (1910-81).
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 (1806) by Beethoven.

This concert is the second in the “Modern Beethoven” series conducted by David Zinman.  As I wrote in the last blog, we couldn’t attend the ones scheduled for Avery Fisher Hall, so we bought tickets to this NJPAC performance instead.

Both the 8th and the 4th belong to the “not as frequently played” Beethoven symphonies.  Not that it is any indication of their popularity, but I do not have either of them in my iPod; which I intend to remedy in the near future.  Neither am I that familiar with either of them, except for the first movement of the 8th.

Interestingly, what the Program Notes say about the even-numbered symphonies (that they are considered reflective and conservative) is truer of these two symphonies than the one (No. 2) we heard last week.  They both have a Mozartian (or Hadynesque, since Beethoven is a student of Haydn) feel to them.  The Eighth is very compact at about 25 minutes, and instead of a slow second movement and a scherzo-minuet third movement we have an “Allegretto scherzando” as the second movement and a “Tempo di Menuetto” as the third.  It may seem Beethoven did away with the traditional format and expanded the Scherzo-Minuet into two movements.  So much for playing a musicologist, but this is not mentioned in the Program Notes.  The Notes does say, however, that Berlioz (as a music critic) was quite baffled by how different keys popped up during the last movement.  For the record, the first and fourth movements are Allegro vivace e con brio and Allegro vivace – notice there is a “con brio.”

This symphony was premiered together with the sixth and seventh, which are tremendously popular today.  I can imagine how an audience would compare the three when they are played in rapid succession like that.  Also, these symphonies no doubt broke new grounds for their time, so I wonder if the listeners got a bit of Beethoven-fatique as well.

Unfortunately I don’t have a lot to say about the fourth as a composition either.  It is a bit longer at an advertised 32 minutes, and consists of the movements Adagio – Allegro vivace, Adagio, Allegro vivace, Allegro ma non troppo; thus notable for a lack of “con brio.”  Yet there are enough lively passages in it.  The unfortunate thing about this symphony is that it is sandwiched between the brilliant and heroic third and fifth symphonies, which for many are more representative of the Beethoven of great contrasts.

The symphony was commissioned by Count Franz von Oppersdorf, and most people believe Beethoven already had the work completed when he received the commission.  On the nyphil.org website we read that the premiere was played using someone else’s orchestra, a faux pax that would not be forgiven by the Count, and as a consequence Beethoven never got another commission from him.

Beethoven was already beginning to go deaf when this work was composed.  He would go on to write another five symphonies (although the fifth had already been started at this time.)

A couple of interesting observations about the orchestra.  For both Beethoven symphonies the size was much reduced.  (E.g., 12 first violins, 8 violas.)  Both call for two horns, yet we saw a third one in the section.  And the timpanist was constantly tuning the drums.

We saw Alisa Weilerstein about a year ago (April 2011).  I can still hum the four-note motif from the Shostakovich concerto, a tribute to how memorable the performance was (or at least the choice of music.)  Meanwhile she has piled on a few more accomplishments, including winning the MacArthur prize.

Despite the glowing write-up in the Program Notes, I didn’t find this performance as captivating as the last one.  Not that there was anything wrong with tonight’s performance.  At a minimum, the music calls for great virtuosity from the musician, and Weilerstein made it sound exquisite and effortless.  Much of the piece seemed to be played on the highest registers of the cello, and you would have the cellist reaching down to the bottom of the fingerboard, and the sound was rich and not the least bit strained at all.  The balance between the cello and the orchestra was also good, at no time was the soloist overwhelmed by the orchestra.

Barber wrote this as a result of a commission by Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony.  The conductor had Raya Garbousova in mind as the soloist.  Barber would first sit through a few hours of the soloist’s playing highlights from her repertoire to get an idea of her qualities, and he would get a lot of feedback from her during the course of the composition.

Before we went to the concert I read up the write-ups on New York Philharmonic’s website, including the PDF files that would be included in the Avery Fisher Hall program.  The Program Notes for NJPAC is different, necessarily so because they are putting on only one of the three concerts.  Nonetheless, what we read in the NJPAC notes is quite different from the Avery Fisher Hall notes, and a bit disjoint at that.  Also, I wonder what got into the Annotator Keller that he would use big words and terms like adumbration, perspicacious, and Apollonian & Dionysian in the Notes from these last two weeks.

This is the second time I went to NJPAC, which is a bit difficult to explain since it is quite a bit closer to us than Lincoln Center, and they do put out reasonably attractive programs.  For example, in mid April they will have Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.  Regardless, the concert hall is kind of circular in shape, with spacious and comfortable seats.  But the acoustics leaves a lot to be desired.  I had a lot of trouble with the cellos, they just didn’t come through.  Strangely, the solo cello was okay.  The hall seats about 2500 people, but even with the four tier blocked off, the remaining sections were about 80% full.

In the Notes there is an admonition to the audience they should not applaud in between movements.  Since I don’t see the same notice in the Avery Fisher Hall programs, I feel it is a slight slap in the face of the Newark audience.  In any case, there was no reason to worry about this: the applause was so tepid that I felt obliged to clap loudly so as to give the artists some moral support.

The New York Times reviewer saw the Avery Fisher Hall performance, naturally.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

New York Philharmonic – David Zinman, conductor; Peter Serkin, piano. March 2, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat V 107, $70.)

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-02) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1928-29, rev. 1949) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811-12) by Beethoven.

We had heard Zinman a couple of times conducting the New York Philharmonic, according to my previous blogs.  For this season he will be conducting a three-week “The Modern Beethoven: A Philharmonic Festival” series.  This is the first week, the following week’s program will feature Symphonies Nos. 4 and 8, and the last week will have Nos. 1 and 7.  Thus Nos. 5, 6 and 9 will not be heard, which makes me wonder how the selections were made, or why the festival is not extended (by two weeks I guess) to cover them.

The other somewhat puzzling item is the choice of the descriptor “The Modern Beethoven” for these concerts.  As far as I could tell, this performance was a “regular” rendition of the symphonies, and the only thing modern about it would be that an orchestra would play them today differently from how they would be played during Beethoven’s time.  A different point would be Beethoven was modern for his time, indeed his music still sounds fresh for today’s audience, even though it is familiar.  Lastly, in each of these concerts there is a solo piece from the modern era.  Today it is Stravinsky.  Next week it is Barber’s Cello Concerto (performed by Alisa Weilerstein) and for the last week Hartman’s Concerto funebre (Gil Shaham.)  Not sure how they fit in, other than to show contrast.

The second symphony is one of the less popular Beethoven symphonies, and I last heard it in August 2010 as part of the Mostly Mozart festival.  The Program Notes describes how some critics consider Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies to be “radical and extroverted” and even-numbered ones to be “conservative and reflective.”  Generally this piece fits the description.  It was simply enjoyable, familiar or not.  The four movements are Adagio molto – Allegro con brio, Larghetto, Scherzo (Allegro), and Allegro molto.

The last time I heard the seventh live was March 2010 in Beijing.  I also enjoyed it, even though there was some quibble with the concert hall’s acoustics.  With regard to “radical and extrovert,” there certainly are enough elements for the music to fit that description.  However, if one listens to the second movement, one would come away concluding that it is “conservative and reflective.”  Some time ago I read Beethoven as being a person of contrasts; I think that would be a better descriptor of his music.  The movements are Poco sostenuto – Vivace, Allegretto, Presto, and Allegro con brio.  I wonder if there is any Beethoven symphony that doesn’t contain a “con brio” movement.

Speaking of the second movement, Zinman took it way too fast for my taste.  The recording on my iPod was performed by Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the La Scala Philharmonic, and it lasts 40 minutes.  It took Zinman 36 minutes to polish it off (per the Program Notes.)  It felt as if all the reduction in time came from the second movement (an exaggeration, of course.)

Even though the orchestra sounded at times a bit confused, it didn’t detract from this being a well-played and enjoyable performance.

The seating arrangement for the Stravinsky at first appeared quite puzzling.  We had Michelle Kim sitting in the Concertmaster’s chair (Sheryl Staples was off today), which was not unusual since the principals often excuse themselves when there is a guest soloist.  Then I noticed that Glen Dicterow was seated somewhere in the violin section.  And there is a double bass right at the front of the stage.  I should have studied the Program Notes a bit more: there is a concertino group of solo violin, viola, cello, and bass.  Also the violins play as one undivided section.

Stravinsky chose to call this a Capriccio instead of a Piano Concerto for a couple of reasons.  One is at 16 minutes it probably is a bit short to be called one.  The three movements (Presto, Andante rapsodico, and Allegro capriccioso ma tempo giusto; the third movement being the first one written) are played without pause.  The second reason, attributed to Prokofiev, was Stravinsky's fear that there isn’t enough virtuosity in it.

Peter Serkin may beg to differ a bit with the last statement.  At a minimum, he needed the music, and as far as I could tell, referred to it quite often.  And the music did exhibit a lot of the characteristics described by Stravinsky: “juxtaposition of episodes of various kinds which follow one another.”  From where we sat, the piano was overwhelmed sometimes by the orchestra, even though Serkin seemed to be pounding away at it.

Most people would associated the name “Serkin” with the first name “Rudolf,” Peter’s father.  Since Rudolf is mentioned in Peter’s biography, one can surmise that there is no worry about the father’s shadow.  The biography certainly contains a long list of Peter’s accomplishments and the awards he has garnered.  Yet one wonders how they compare; there is no escape from “I am my father’s son.”  Her certainly looks quite youthful for his age (mid 60s).

We had already bought tickets to the third concert of this series.  We cannot attend the second concert in New York City because we have conflicts on all three days; and they were on sale on Goldstar.com.  It turns out the program will be played at NJPAC in Newark this Friday, so we will be going there instead.  I remember having Mozart-overload after listening to three of his symphonies at one concert, I wonder how I would feel after three weeks of Beethoven.

This concert started at 2 pm, so we got in early enough to have lunch.  To our surprise, Sushi-a-go-go was closed; the owner declared bankruptcy despite the brisk business it always seemed to be doing.  So we had a quick bite at Jalapeno’s.  Not expensive, but not that great either.

The New York Times review on the performance is very positive, and contains some insight into the (strenuous) connection between Stravinsky and Beethoven.