Monday, April 23, 2012

Metropolitan Opera - Wagner's Siegfried. April 21, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat F20, $95).

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor - Fabio Luisi.  Mime - Gerhard Siegel, Siegfried - Jay Hunter Morris, The Wanderer - Bryn Terfel, Alberich - Eric Owens, Fafner - Hans-Peter Konig, The Forest Bird - Erin Morley, Erda - Patricia Bardon, Brunnhilde - Deborah Vight.

Sports fan debate if it counts as a grand slam if a tennis player wins the four majors over the course of two years.  The purist would insist all of them must be won in the same year.  In the same regard I didn’t see the Ring for the second time even though with today’s performance I saw all four operas with the new production.  I have an even weaker case as I saw Gotterdammerung before seeing Siegfried, thus I didn’t even see the four in the right order.

This time I went by myself.  One reason I got the ticket was because Anne had to be in Flushing for most the day, so I was going to be by myself anyway.  Having gotten back home Friday night at about 11:30 pm, I had to catch the 9:14 am train from Metropark Saturday morning.  Meanwhile Joe and Jess were staying over, which made for quite a bit of schedule juggling.  And their dog Ruby ate a tube of antibiotic cream to boot!  (They had to make her vomit, but she is okay.)  All of us (including Ellie and Kuau) did meet up for dinner at the Korean Tofu restaurant in Edison, which made for a nice conclusion for the day.

I had re-read my writeup on the last Siegfried I saw (Seattle), the gist of which is that I wasn’t particularly impressed.  The tenor singing Siegfried was not feeling well and turned in a very weak performance.  Siegfried himself was naïve and somewhat crude, and thus not a very sympathetic figure.  On top of that we were quite tired as we were shuttling between Seattle and San Francisco between operas.  I even made the remark that it was quite unlikely I would see the opera for a second time.

I need to re-assess some of those sentiments.  With this second hearing, the music made a lot more sense to me.  The leitmotifs were clear, and sometimes I thought even over-repeated a bit – perhaps inevitable as for the five-plus hour opera we have only a few characters.  Siegfried came across as much more reasonable.  What I am curious about is whether this is due to more familiarity, different performers, or because I was simply more awake.  Nonetheless, it made the story more plausible.  And I probably should eat my words about not going to see any Ring Cycle ever again.  For now I will revise it to “I won’t mind seeing another Cycle if is done by another cast.”

For this opera the multi-million dollar set was again used mostly as a screen, although the planks were lined up every now and then to form a cave or a path.  I was quite sure we would get a staircase for Siegfried to run up to the mountain, but we got this row of Xs instead.  It was quite clever how they presented Brunnhilde by making her more visible as the last scene progressed.  If I am not mistaken, I heard more creaks and groans from the planks as they were being rotated.  Also, the dragon looked more like a big snake.  I found it somehow incongruent with the impressionistic set.

The singing was generally quite good.  Although how the sound came across was affected substantially by how the planks were arranged.  For instance, when Siegfried and Brunnhilde first began to sing together, they were directly in front of this row of planks, and the voices came across very well.  As they moved away from the planks or to other parts of the set, their voices dropped off quite a bit.  I must say Voigt’s performance was most impressive.  She only appeared towards the end of the opera, so the demands on her were relatively modest; but she managed to make the whole thing look easy.  I remember feeling sorry for Stig Andersen who sang the title role in Seattle, that sentiment wasn’t at all necessary for Morris.  Mime and Siegfried actually acted as percussionists when they were forging the sword Nothung.  I must say Mime did a better job than Siegfried.  Finally, the horn solo (Erik Ralske) was just amazing, I didn't know you could play the horn so soft and steady.

I do find seeing Seigfried after Gotterdammerung was illuminating, somewhat like watching a movie that tells the story in reverse chronological order.  In the case of the Ring, this is how Wagner wrote the stories anyway, starting with Gotterdammerung and ending with Das Rheingold.

In any case, I do wonder if my attitude towards the Ring Cycle would continue to evolve if I get to see it again.

The New York Time review is from an early performance with this set.  The reviewer goes into quite a bit of detail into every aspect of the opera, including how Morris was the second substitute for that role.   Most (but not) all of the artists are the same as today’s, and I assume many of them are more settled in their roles by now.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

New York Philharmonic - Herbert Blomstedt, conductor; Garrick Ohlsson, piano. April 20, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat T106, $70).

Piano Concerto in E-flat major, K.271 (1777) by Mozart (1756-91).
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).

For various reasons I didn't have time to read up on the program, so all I knew about the concert before we left for New York was the pieces to be performed.  We left our car at the train station for Joe and Jess to pick up from their trip to Puerto Rico and we took the train in.  Dinner at China Fun.  Same fare, but they seemed to have had a recent price increase.

The concerto by Mozart was his ninth, and - according to the Program Notes - his first masterpiece.  Evidently Mozart's genius as a composer wasn't evident until this year when he turned 21.  I am somewhat dismayed to find out all five of his violin concertos belong in the "lightweight" category.

The movement markings of the piece are ordinary enough: Allegro, Andantino,and Rondeau: Presto.  However, there are at least a couple of extraordinary things about it.  First is how soon the piano would make a statement.  It was short, and the orchestra then goes on to play a rather traditional introduction.  The second surprise is the insertion of a minuet in the otherwise (again) traditional Rondo movement. To me, listening to them for the first time in 2012, neither was particularly radical.  Actually I wished the piano had gotten more into the dialog (as some of Mozart's later concertos do), and I am not sure how well the minuet works in the third movement: it sounded incongruent without providing am interesting contrast. Some of the lightweight violin concerto movements also have grafted sections but still manage to sound very coherent.

My point is one can overanalyze these things.  The piece itself is enjoyable enough.  Not technically challenging, but with enough flourish to make it sound interesting.  Ohlsson is called a Chopin expert in the Program Notes, so I am sure he found no technical challenges in the music.  The balance with the orchestra was great: at no point did one party overwhelm the other.  And I definitely enjoy the crispness and lightness of the piano part. The orchestra generally did very well, although every now and then some sloppiness crept in - probably because Mozart was easy picking for them.

This Tchaikovsky symphony was last performed by the New York Philharmonic in April, 2009, conducted by Charles Dutoit.  We were at that series.  I reread my blog and actually share the same sentiments as I did then.  At least that gives me some confidence in myself as a critic!  This time around I really appreciated how Tchaikovsky reworked the "fate" theme.  Despite the Program Notes claim that at some point it turned positive for a while, what I heard was mostly gloom and doom.

This symphony is one of those emotional tear-jerkers and one may claim the interpretation can be overdone.  Not me.  I enjoyed tonight's somewhat over-the-top performance.  I only recall vaguely the 2009 performance but I am sure it was more measured and controlled.  Tonight's performance was barely under control, but well done.

A few words about the American-born Swedish conductor.  He will turn 85 this year but must be the most energetic 80+ year old conductor we have seen - and we have seen a few.  He chose not to use a podium for the more intimate Mozart concerto.  Given his small stature I could only see his hand every now and then, my view of his body blocked by the massive piano.  With a more traditional podium for the Tchaikovsky, I could see "economy of movement" is not in his conducting vocabulary. The orchestra probably doesn't need that kind of "detailed instructions" but responded with equal enthusiasm.  He did this without the score.

The audience showed their approval and I think there were four curtain calls.  And one could see the orchestra members smiling in appreciation.

Perhaps not the most nuanced interpretation of this symphony, but a most enjoyable one no doubt. I do have a question of how the two pieces for the evening fit together.

Our return trip worked out okay also.  Joe picked us up at the South Amboy station.

The New York Times reviewer is high on both pieces, but describes the Tchaikovsky performance as "without ever succumbing to sentimentality."  Either he heard a different concert, or we have different ideas on what constitutes sentimentality.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hong Kong Philharmonic - Edo de Waart, conductor. April 7, 2012.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Stalls 1 (Seat G47, HK$320).

Iris Devoilee (2002) by Chen Qigang (b. 1951).
Parsifal - an orchestral quest (arr. Henk de Vlieger, 1993) by Wagner (1813-1883).

This is the first of a series of three concerts by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the banner “Farewell to Edo" to say goodbye to Edo de Waart who has led the orchestra since 2004.  As I said before, HKPO has transformed itself into a great orchestra and undoubtedly de Waart deserves a lot of the credit.  From what I can tell, he always expected a lot from his musicians, and they delivered.  Perhaps fittingly for the tribute, there are no “easy” pieces in the programs, starting with what we heard at tonight’s concert.  I guess "Visions Unveiled" can be taken to mean how de Waart introduced his personal vision to the orchestra during the early years.  Next week’s program is titled “Dream Harmonies” and features Strauss’s Don Quixote and Adams’s Harmonielehre.  Beethoven’s Ninth will be on the “Moment of Farewell” program.

Of course I had never heard either piece before.  For this concert we also had Tim, Whitney, Stephen, Ruth, Wally and Ling with us.  I wasn’t sure how the music would go over, and kept warning them about Wagner’s opera being inscrutable and long.  And I didn’t know what to expect of the piece by Chen Qigang (陳其鋼).

Chen was born in Shanghai and studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.  He then went off to Paris to study under Olivier Messiaen, eventually as a private student.  One of his claims to international fame was the ballet Raise the Red Lantern (which came after the movie.)  The title of tonight’s piece (Iris Unveiled) is translated into Butterflies Love Flowers in Chinese (蝶戀花) and was originally called Ode to Woman.  If you read the descriptions of the different movements, you would actually think the origanl title is more appropriate: Ingenious, Chaste, Libertine, Sensitive, Tender, Jealous, Melancholic, Hysterical, and Voluptuous.  The Chinese descriptions don’t exactly match the English, but frankly it would be futile for me to decide if - for instance - the second movement should be titled “chaste” or “shy’ (which is the term used in the Chinese program.)

The composition uses a traditional western orchestra, but except for the soprano Chen Xiaoduo, the other five soloists use either Chinese instruments (Erhu by Wang Nan, Pipa by Li Jia, and Zheng by Chang Jing) or Chinese-style singing (Soprano II and Qingyi Meng Meng.)  Except for the Pipa which produces a very soft sound, the balance between the soloists and the orchestra worked surprisingly well.  This applies to how well the different styles blended together also.  With the movements clearly labeled, it was easy to follow the different moods explored by the music.  In that regard it was rewarding.

The piece was (per the Program) premiered in Paris “with enormous success,” and was played (at least) twice by the HKPO.  Beyond that I wonder how often it has been performed.

Henk de Vlieger (b. 1953) was a percussionist at the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra during 1987 to 2002, during which time de Waart was the Music Director.  He has adapted four of Wagner’s operas into symphonies, and Parsifal was Wagner’s last opera.

Over the years, I have actually heard quite a few of Wagner’s operas (Ring, Tristan & Isolde, and The Flying Dutchman) and have some appreciation of his music.  Yet I had no idea what Parsifal was like except it was quite solemn.  Today’s program describes the opera as set in a Spanish castle where the Knights of the Grail guard both the Holy Grail and the spear with which Christ was wounded when crucified.  De Vlieger’s adaption has seven sections played without pause: Vorspiel, Parsifal, Die Gralsritter I, Die Blumenmadchen, Karfreitagszauber, Die Gralsritter II, and Nachspiel.

To the annotator’s credit, we had a very good (and short) description of the music and could by-and-large follow the movements as they unfolded.  The solemnity of the story came through, and the orchestra’s performance provided the necessary drama as I tried to imagine what was happening.  Certainly my curiosity about the opera (which is five hours long, with intermissions) is raised and would definitely try to see it if possible.

The applause was quite enthusiastic (by Hong Kong audience standards) and deservedly so.  In the insert one reads de Waart’s having conducted 203 concerts with over 200,000 in attendance.  That works out to a paltry 1,000 or so per performance.  Indeed there were quite a few empty seats in the auditorium tonight.

HKPO may or may not be a world-class orchestra, but it certainly doesn’t have a world-class audience.  It deserves much better than that.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Hong Kong Sinfonietta – Jason Lai, conductor; Tine Thing Helseth, trumpet. March 30, 2012.

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, Balcony (Seat BF7, HK$200.)

Prelude a L’Apres-midi d’un Faune by Claude Debussy (1862-1918).
Trumpet Concerto in E-flat by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837).
Ma Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).

After meeting up with Anne’s sister at the Hong Kong club, we decided to walk across the street to City Hall to see what concerts might be available.  To our surprise, the Sinfonietta was going to have a concert that evening.  We bought tickets for ourselves and Ruth and Stephen.  For the following day (Saturday) Lorin Maazel actually was going to conduct a performance, but we wouldn’t be able to make it because of prior commitments.  In any case, we had some time on our hands this (Friday) afternoon, so we went to Mongkok East to meet up with Ruth and Stephen, had dinner with them, and then came back to Central for the concert.

It so happens we had some exposure both to the soloist and the Hummel piece before we left for Hong Kong.  WQXR was talking about Helseth and how she is considered to be a top trumpeter from Norway.  On a different occasion we heard how Hummel’s concert was actually the first ever composed for the “modern” trumpet (modern in terms of valves and pistons) and actually we also heard Wynton Marsalis play the piece, although frankly I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the station.  In any case, this was an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

The concerto actually was quite short at less than 20 minutes.  As a first piece written for the modern trumpet, it contains some virtuoso passages that no doubt were very difficult at its time.  However, I am sure this is now rather standard repertoire for a professional trumpet player, despite the glowing terms used in the Program Notes about the piece’s difficult passages.  Helseth certainly produced a pleasant and clear sound, and she appeared to work quite well with the orchestra.  The performance, though enjoyable, didn’t meet the hype generally given to this composition, or to Helseth’s being called Norway’s best young trumpet player.

She played an encore by a Norwegian composer.

Debussy’s piece is  quite popular, and we enjoyed it.  This must be the second time we ever heard “Mother Goose” being performed, I guess I greet it with the same attitude I did when I first heard it: with a shrug of the shoulder.

The orchestra actually played better than I expected.  It is larger than I anticipated (18 violins, for instance) and generally plays with precision and good range.  The horns could get a bit tentative, though.

The regular conductor is Yip Wing-see, whom I have heard much about but have never seen; tonight’s conductor was British-born Jason Lai.  He used to be the associate conductor of the Sinfonietta, but now leads an orchestra in Singapore.  His movements were a bit on the exaggerated side, but get things done.

The seating capacity of the concert hall is 1400 or so, and there were many empty seats.  Even with the many renovations done to it, the hall still feels a bit old.  We were seated in the balcony, and the view of the stage was surprisingly poor.  I still remember the excitement of walking into this brand new building when I was a teenager, and have performed on that stage several times.

Anne told her sister during dinner tonight that she enjoyed the concert a lot; good for her.