Sunday, May 27, 2012
Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier (Seat BB107, $70).
Carnival, Op. 92 (1891) by Dvorak (1841-1904).
Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. posth., BB 48a (1907-08) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877-78) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).
It feels like it’s been a while that we last saw the New York Philharmonic. It was actually April 20, a little over a month ago. There have been six intervening concerts since we heard them last, perhaps that was one reason; the fact these concerts happened at other venues also contributed to my sense of coming home after being absent for a while. Not something I would have expected. This is also a “coming home” of some sort for the orchestra as they just completed a tour of the West Coast.
I was wondering what Dvorak’s Carnival would sound like, and reading the Program Notes didn’t help. It did explain this was the second overture envisioned in Dvorak’s triptych of Nature, Life, and Love, and it even had an excerpt of a phrase called the “Theme of Nature.” Turns out this was one of the more familiar pieces by Dvorak (perhaps just second to his New World Symphony in popularity). It was fast, fun, furious, and most enjoyable. The tempo was extremely fast and at times not everyone seemed to be able to keep up; to my taste they could slow it down somewhat and nothing would be taken away from the performance.
Bela Bartok wrote two violin concertos, with the second one being the much more popular one. Indeed, while the first was completed in 1908, it wasn’t premiered until May, 1958 (Program Notes also says New York Philharmonic Premiere was in February, 1955, so I am a bit confused.) When Bartok began the piece he had his girlfriend Stefi Geyer in mind. While he was working on the concerto, he also began to have a discussion of his religion with her that eventually led to the breakup of the relationship. Nonetheless, Bartok gave Geyer a copy of the score with the inscription “My Confession: For Stefi, from the times that were happy ones. Although even that was only half-happiness.” And the work wasn’t performed until 1958, a year and half after Geyer died (see confusion above.) A good story-teller can probably make a great screenplay out of this.
How is the music? Per the Program Notes, Bartok describes the first movement (Andante sostenuto [attacca]) as a depiction of an “idealized Stefi Geyer, celestial and inward”; the second (Allegro giocoso), a character that was “cheerful, witty, amusing,” Given the background, one can describe the piece as melancholic, wistful, and regretful also. I frankly didn’t get a lot out of it, although I was surprised how classical the last couple of minutes sounded.
In keeping with the “coming home” theme, having Dicterow come on stage doesn’t quite generate the excitement of other soloists. He is a familiar face, and we often hear him do solo lines during the performances anyway. As far as I could tell, he did a great job with the piece. Lines were clean, technique flawless, and intonation great (much better than usual). The violin’s sound was a bit weak against the full orchestra at times, but quite adequate (first tier seats don’t get the best acoustics, anyway.) Yet every time he performs, I wonder about the choice of music. Perhaps he is trying to establish a reputation as an interpreter of obscure or modern violin music; if so, he still has ways to go. The applause was quite enthusiastic, and undoubtedly, or unfortunately, will encourage him to continue down this path.
Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony was written about ten years before his fifth (which we heard at our last concert.) Both symphonies have the word “fate” associated with it, and are both described as depressing. However, Tchaikovsky’s mental outlook must have worsened a lot over ten years as the fourth sounded positively euphoric compared to the fifth (well, that was going a little too far.) This symphony shares many of the characteristics of the later symphony, including a somewhat similar theme that gets worked many times. The first movement (Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima) is the most substantial, taking up 18 of the 45 or so minutes. The second movement (Andantino in modo di canzone) began with an introduction by the oboe that got repeated in other sections multiple times. The third movement (Scherzo. Pizzicato ostinato: Allegro) was true to its description until close to the end. It felt like a movement from a string serenade. It continued without pause to the last movement – Finale: Allegro con fuoco – which was a bit too hurried in my view. The audience went crazy and Gilbert introduced the different sections of the orchestra as he took his deserved bows.
It is interesting to contrast how Gilbert and Blomstedt led the two different symphonies. Both pieces require a competent orchestra, and the conductor can decide how much control he wants to have on the performance. Gilbert is more reserved (relatively) and in doing so managed a more nuanced rendition of the work. Blomstedt seemed to be happy to let the orchestra take the lead, like a rider letting the horse go during the final stretch. Were this a competition, my nod would go to Gilbert. On the other hand, Blomstedt can take you on a more exhilarating ride.
One word about the brass section. In general they did well, but did botch a couple of places. In the big scheme of things this was not very important, but the mistakes (which happened early) did stick out.
This review was written in a hurry since I wanted to get it done before our 11-day trip (leaving later today.) I wonder if I will have different or additional thoughts when I get to think more about it.
The New York Times Review is very positive. The reviewer describes the Bartok piece as the program’s “most substantial draw.” I wonder how many people came tonight because of this.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle (Seat C7, $68).
Choreography by Natalia Makarova, after Marius Petipa
Music by Ludwig Minkus, specially arranged by John Lanchbery
Conductor – Charles Barker; Nikiya – Veronika Part, Solor – Marcelo Gomes, The Radjah Dugumanta – Gennadi Saveliev, Gamzatti - Gillian Murphy, The High Brahmin – Victor Barbee; Sarah Lane, Devon Teuscher and Yuriko Kajiya – Lead Shades.
Story. Nikiya, a beautiful temple dancer, rejects the love of the High Brahmin; she instead falls in love with the warrior Solor. The Brahmin vows to kill Solor as a result. Separately, the Radjah wants to reward Solor by decreeing that he marry Gamzatti, the Radjah’s daughter. Solor is overwhelmed by Gamzatti’s beauty, and, not wanting to defy the Radjah, agrees to marry her. After being told of Nakiya’s love for Solor, the Radjah wants to have her killed. Gamzatti meets with Nikiya which results in Nikiya trying to kill her. At the wedding of Solor and Gamzatti, Nikiya is asked to dance. She is bitten by the snake hidden in her bouquet and dies after refusing the antidate. Solor is grief-stricken and, being under the influence of opium, dreams of Nikiya. As the wedding ceremony of Solor and Gamzatti progresses, the gods become angry and destroys the temple and all the celebrants. The ballet ends with Nikiya and Solor united again.
The story is simple enough, but doesn’t really hang together on close examination. Few people go to ballets to hear a gripping story anyway, so that’s okay. The ballet is also quite long, with the three acts lasting about 60, 40 and 20 minutes. With two intermissions thrown in, the entire show is about 2 hours 45 minutes. All together there is a lot of dancing and music.
The three principals (Solor, Nikiya and Gamzatti) all put in enjoyable performances. Not knowing much about ballet, I can’t tell if they are virtuoso performances, but some of the movements look difficult enough, and the audience certainly applauded quite enthusiastically. ABT has a very international staff: Gomes is from Brazil, Hart from Russia, and Murphy is American. The group dancers also did well, although I often wonder if they can’t be more together as a group. One dancer did trip and fall – it was when she first came in, so Anne though perhaps the stage was slippery. From the smile on her face, she seemed okay. Act II began with the descent of The Shades (spirits); they appeared one by one and eventually lined up six across and four deep. The whole process took a while, but the Act itself was pleasant enough – even though it was Solor dreaming about the dead Nakiya.
The music is on the straight-forward side, written mostly to support the choreography. There were quite a few solo passages (harp, flute, violin, cello, and perhaps others), and the soloists all did well. On the other hand, I suspect in and of itself there is not much drama in the score. I wonder how it would work if performed as a stand-alone piece. The orchestra sounded well, albeit uninspired.
The sets are on the simple side, with the exception of Act III. Even there we have only a staircase leading up to an altar. A dance by a golden boy started Act III (it is described as a bronze idol in the program.) Both Anne and I had always thought, after watching a James Bond movie, that one way to murder someone was to paint that person all gold; evidently that is not so.
If you ignore the costumes, there is not a lot of Indian in this ballet that supposedly happened in India. Not the music, not the dance movements (most of them, anyway), and – in the case of Act II – not even the costume, which Anne observed to be standard ballet costume. This seems to be very different from the attitude taken by opera production folks who strive for authenticity.
Perhaps the sign of a great performance is it looked effortless. By that measure this was a great performance. Or this could be it is easy to meet non-existent or low expectations. Regardless, I enjoyed it.
It appears this ballet is a part of ABT’s standard repertoire, and I managed only to find a review from May 2010. The reviewer goes into great contortion about the possibilities of the ballet, but is ultimately disappointed at the performance he saw. Interestingly, Gamzatti and Solor were played by the same artists. I knew there was something about Gillian Murphy, and the review pointed it out: “Will Gillian Murphy discover how to use the Bette Davis features of her face?”
We ate a light meal at home before we drove into the city. And we found street parking that cost only 50 cents (for the 10 minutes before 7 pm). Traffic was light both ways.
Saturday, May 12, 2012
The Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Newark, NJ, Preferred Seating ($25).
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, “Choral” by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Archdiocesan Festival and Cathedral Choirs
Elizabeth Perryman, Soprano; Mary Clare McAlee, Mezzo-Soprano; Theodore Chletsos, Tenor; Gustavo Ahualli, Bass-Baritone
Recently we went to all three of the New York Philharmonic "Modern Beethoven" series and heard six of the symphonies. We also found out about this concert while we were at NJ PAC, and we had known for a while about the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark. Since the tickets cost $25 each to boot, it was a no brainer. We got up at around 6:30 am this morning for a meeting (in Lancaster, PA), and didn’t get back home until around 5 pm, so we felt a little rushed. Parking was not a problem – the church had a reasonably sized lot, and we got there early enough to get a space.
The cathedral is quite cavernous, high ceiling, traditional layout, and seats quite a few (they can crowd 4000 in, not sure how many seats.) It may be a great place for holding worship services, but as a concert hall it certainly has it shortcomings. First, even though we were seated in the choir section, the stage (apse and transept) is quite high and consequently we had a limited view of the performers beyond the first row violinists. We couldn’t tell if the choir was already seated (turns out it was.) The construction of the apse and the high ceiling make the hall a great echo chamber. All the voices (instrument and vocal) sounded as if they had gone through a blender, and there was a reverb of two seconds or so when the music was done (I kind of counted after the last note was played.) The good news for the artists is there is a charitable excuse for the muddled performance, and a muddled performance it was.
With the correct yardstick, the overall performance is not that bad. But the yardstick would be one appropriate for an amateur organization, not a professional one: everyone mostly sang in tune, the orchestra – especially the strings - was reasonably precise (at least appeared to be), and the conductor kept good time, with a bit of dynamics thrown in every now and then. The soloists all shouted, but were heard clearly (I think they were in front and their voices didn’t suffer as much processing.) On the down side, the timpani sounded out of tune, the choir sopranos couldn’t quite get to the high notes, and the conductor did little more than keeping time.
Despite all my unease, I still found myself enjoying the concert. I can also appreciate the effort put in by the organizers and performers to make this happen. The audience certainly showed their appreciation by their long ovation.
This must be a big deal for the Diocese of Newark. It is therefore quite inexplicable how they messed up the cover of the program: Beethoven (1740-1792). Web search says these are the dates for Johann van Beethoven, Ludwig’s father.
It took us a good 20 minutes to get out of the parking lot afterwards. We had more than enough time to listen to my iPod’s version of the last movement. It sounded like a completely different piece of music, even allowing for the engineering that could happen with the recording.
Monday, May 07, 2012
Peter Hall at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA (Open Seating, $27).
Program: Bach and the Art of the Dance
Partita I in B Flat Major, BWV 825.
Partita V in G Major, BWV 829.
Partita III in A Minor, BWV 827.
Partita IV in D Major, BWV 828.
My expectations were quite low for this concert, for several reasons. One is I am not a fan of the harpsichord, two is (should be obvious by now) I am not crazy about Bach, and three, yesterday’s experience wasn’t the greatest. Yet the program held for me some surprises.
The smallish audience (perhaps around 100 people) and the ambience of Peter Hall helped. They provided a level of intimacy one might expect of a harpsichord performance. The Hall was recently renovated, with some nice restored stained glass window letting in a soft light into the room (there was also fluorescent lighting.)
Our friend David loves Bach, so he brought along an analysis of the five pieces that would be performed, with a lot of numbers on meter, length of piece, metronome markings (although metronomes were not around in Bach’s time), and duration. When I first read it, I was dismayed at the duration of the two pieces that make up the second half of the program: they add up to close to an hour! More on that later.
The harpsichord must have been state-of-the-art in its day. Not being a mechanical engineer, I do not fully appreciate the genius that goes into the design of the instrument. But things look complicated enough; to generate the different sounds the artist can make, many different contraptions are put in place, such as choirs and keyboards. Even so, the instrument’s range is quite limited compared to what can be done with the modern piano. People do play the same composition (including Bach’s Partitas) on both instruments, it would be nice to compare how they sound. I also will have some more to say about this.
Charlotte Mattax Moersch teaches the instrument at the University of Illinois, and comes with great credentials per the Program (of course she would.) My first reaction was, too bad she chose this as her instrument. Surprisingly, the music actually grew on me as it went on. Perhaps David’s analytical chart helped, and I also had fun trying to learn the different characteristics of the different dances (e.g., what makes something a sarabande), even though I learned little afterwards.
Moersch enunciated the different lines very well, and at times I found myself enjoying how they fit together. So it was a pity that just at the point I was lost in the performance that she mangled her page turning and stumbled a bit. After the first two pieces, David told us he was very excited to hear all the repeats Bach meant to have, and how we got the symmetry that Bach intended. That remark kind of flew over my head (but wait, I have more to say.)
If one counts the time the pieces would total per David’s chart, and throws in a short break of ten minutes, you’ll get a program that lasts about two hours. A lot of music for one sitting, probably bearable. But the next event (lunch) would start two hours after this, and the emcee mentioned to the audience (and evidently the performer) that we will try to speed up the second part of the program. Moersch did tell the audience she would try to do that, but that she could do only so much. Turns out she could do a lot: she skipped most (if not all) of the repeats. The 55 minutes of music got shortened to 35 or so minutes. Given what I have said so far, this should be a welcome change. But it isn’t. I am sure she didn’t play at a quicker tempo (actually one of the correntes sounded slow), so not taking the repeats made the music felt rushed. And things also didn’t feel right, possibly due to the lack of symmetry that David speaks of?
After my first day, I was wondering if I would get Bach-fatigue after these two days. To my surprise, I didn’t. I am not a convert yet, and I probably would decline another invitation to the next Bach festival (other than to be nice), but I certainly won’t mind a dose of this composer every now and then. That was suspiciously like the sentiments I expressed after watching the Ring operas in Seattle.
In any case, we were among the many that lingered a little bit afterwards taking in the instrument and the room. We (Yees, Wangs, and we) went to lunch at Bethlehem Brewery. Reasonably priced dishes that tasted quite good: I had the BBQ ribs marinated in local beer. Indeed there are lots of different cuisines represented by the Main Street restaurants: Irish, Spanish, Thai, and what I imagine are German.
On our drive back to New Jersey, we played Partita IV on my iPhone, by Glenn Gould. Hearing it played on the piano is very different from hearing it on the harpsichord. I did find myself wondering, Bach must have written this piece with the capabilities and limitations of the harpsichord in mind, what would he think of Gould’s performance? Ah, the early makings of a musicologist and music historian.
A word about the Bach festival. If it is meant to showcase the Choir and the Orchestra, they really should work harder at improving the quality of their musicianship. If it is meant to celebrate Bach and his compositions, they could cut down on their own programs and substitute outside artists and groups.
Events attended (all at Lehigh University):
Distinguished Scholar Lecture – Nicholas Kenyon: Bach in the 21st Century, Black Box Theatre, Zoellner Arts Center (free).
Bach Cantatas, Packer Memorial Church (Lower Transept Seat E14, $27).
Dinner and Discussion – Larry Lipkis ($35).
Bach Cantatas, Packer Memorial Church (Lower Transept Seat E14, $27).
Agnes Zsiqovics, soprano; Rosa Lamoreaux, soprano; Daniel Taylor, countertenor; Benjamin Butterfield, tenor; William Sharp, baritone; and Daniel Lichti, bass.
Our friends David and Vivien have been going to this annual event every year since 1999. They had mentioned this event to us a couple of years ago, but we had never been able to make it until this year.
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem claims a heritage extending to the colonial period, and was the choir that introduced Bach’s Mass in B minor to the United States. Indeed they now perform this work every year (afternoon of second day), so claims David and Vivien. We didn’t get tickets for this concert for a couple of reasons: we needed to be back home Friday reasonably early to prepare for a Sunday event, and we were afraid that we would be “Bached out” by the time we get to this program. Turns out we were okay with the Sunday preparation, and, surprisingly, we didn’t get Bached out, either – although I don’t regret not having gone to that concert either.
Bethlehem is also an interesting city. While we are only a short 80 or so minutes away, and must have driven past it on US78 many times, this was actually the first time we visited. Indeed we went to Bethlehem, Israel last fall, before we visited this town. It was first settled by Moravians who came because of persecution back home, and Moravian College is part of that heritage (even though the college is now secular). The Bethlehem Hotel claims to be the oldest hotel in the USA, and indeed many buildings claim to go back to around 1740. Despite the demise of its once strong steel industry, the town, or at least the parts of town we saw, seems to be holding its own.
The talk by Nicholas Kenyon traced how Bach has been interpreted differently through the ages, and he used quite a few sound tracks to prove his point. I am sure interpretation of Bach evolves. I still remember when I was a student reporter during a Hong Kong Music Festival, I covered a competition where the judge would disqualify any performer who would interpret Bach in an ”erroneous” (i.e., romantic) manner. That was more than 40 years ago; things seem quite a bit different today. However, one wonders if a different point can be made if one uses different sounds tracks from the different eras.
The choir is actually quite large at about 80 singers (their website says 100). The orchestra is quite large also, with 6 first and 6 second violins, for instance. Most interestingly, there are four oboes, which seem too many for this orchestra. Unfortunately, large doesn’t always equal good. There were many more women than men in the choir, and the weakness of the male voices was evident. Interestingly, except for the basses, all the string players are women.
A total of five cantatas were performed: 79 – Gott der Herr ist Sonn un Schild, 170 – Vergnugte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, 4 – Christ lag in Todesbanden, 80 – Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, and 21 – Ich hatte viel Bekummernis. The Program for the Festival goes into considerable detail about them, and the dinner speaker also gave some pointers on what one should listen for (he covered only a limited number of themes.) We have a mixture of arias, recitatives, and chorales. No. 170 was all solos by the countertenor Daniel Taylor. There was extensive use of a solo oboe and basso continuo, where the cello figured prominently.
While there are some high points in the performances, most of the time I thought they were just mediocre. With Bach, “architecture” (harmony, counterpoint, etc.) is very important, and I thought on many occasions the lines were blurred, entrances blundered, and balance butchered.
I don’t know if this choir is the acknowledged Bach organization, and I feverishly hope not. At dinner we met some people who have been attending these concerts for decades. Some fly in every year, some even move to the area so they could come to these and other Bach concerts. I can’t begin to fathom why. I am quite sure Bach deserves a better Bach choir.
The choir has been under the direction of Greg Funfgeld since 1983, and no doubt has improved tremendously over the years, as the Program hints (I shudder to think what it was like in 1983.) On the other hand, could the sloppiness and staleness be in part due to lack of new ideas?
Tuesday, May 01, 2012
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Section Parquet Right (Seat Y14, $25).
Scherzo for Strings (1900) by Franz Schreker (1878-1934).
Romance No. 2 in F major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 50 (1798) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Minor, Op. 37 (“Gretry”) (1858-61) by Henry Vieuxtemps (1820-1881).
Pendulum IX: “Machina/Humana” (2012) by Alex Mincek (b. 1975).
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550 (1788) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Tonight’s concert started at 7 pm, we had a late lunch (started around 2:15 pm) with Ellie and Kuau, so we decided not to have dinner before. We got to the area reasonably early and had a little time to stroll around before heading to the venue. It was it nice day: after an unseasonably warm winter, spring has turned out to be much dryer and it bit cooler than usual.
These Orpheus concerts are seldom sold out in my experience, and today’s attendance was lighter than usual. Even though one hears Hagner's name every now and then, she certainly does not have the drawing power of a Shaham or an Ohlsson, so the low attendance is probably understandable.
This is the first time we see Hagner in person, and she looks more Asian, and younger than the publicity photo would lead one to think. A wiki-search indeed indicates her mother is Korean and she was born in 1977. She plays the 1717 Sasserno Stradivarius loaned to her by the Nippon Music Foundation.
The Beethoven romance is known to most violin students. It is quite easy, and is seldom heard live for the simple reason that it is difficult to design a program where it fits. While the sound produced by Hagner was sweet, and the balance with the orchestra was good, it was a rather flat performance. Actually I am sure many in the audience – myself included – must think they can do an equally credible job with the piece.
For lack of a better comparison, Vieuxtemps to the violin is somewhat like Czerny to the piano: best known for works written for the student. Granted, some of these students can be quite advanced. This Vieuxtemps concerto is actually quite difficult, not quite approaching a Sibelius or a Tchaikovsky, but certainly a Wieniawski or a Brahms. The Program Notes confirms this by saying the piece was written as a competition piece, with the third movement added in 1861. The three movements are Allegro non troppo – Adagio – Allegro con fuoco, played without pause, and with the last movement lasting all of one minute. It is quite perplexing why this was chosen for the evening, while it demands some degree of virtuosity from the soloist, it lacks the intensity of a true virtuoso piece. Musically I have no idea if the piece really goes anywhere.
I, for one, cannot conclude what level Hagner as an artist is from tonight’s concert. So far I can only go with “she is an excellent violin student.”
Project 440 is the name given to how Orpheus marks its fortieth anniversary by commissioning four works. Alex Mincek is one of them, which is straightforward enough. The little twist is tonight wasn’t the premiere: it was first played a few days ago in Tennessee. I guess that’s the first location of the orchestra’s tour of this series. The idea of a Pendulum is clever enough. For this one it is supposed to transition from a machine to a human being. For 9 of the 11 minutes I heard mostly machine, with the human taking over only towards the end. I can picture in my mind several ways one can make the transition more interesting, but this composer’s version isn’t any of them.
The Mozart symphony is one of the more familiar ones, and tonight it started well enough. It is a little over thirty minutes, and consists of four movements Molto allegro, Andante, Menuetto: Allegretto, and Finale: Allegro assai. As the piece progressed, however, things began to unravel. Anne would use the phrase “they got ahead of themselves” to describe the chaos. Both of us agree this performance makes for a strong case why a conductor is necessary.
Before the Mozart piece there was a short interview of bassoonist Frank Morelli by WQXR’s Naomi Lewin. The performance was being broadcast live, and they basically talked a bit about how Mozart added to the bassoon repertoire. I didn’t get much from it, though.
The Program Notes say very little about the first piece (Scherzo for Strings by Schreker), and fittingly I don’t remember much about it either as I type this two days later.
That, perhaps, is a good way to describe tonight’s performance: quite forgettable. I just got a renewal notice from Orpheus for next year, and to my amusement they no longer offor the special package price of $25 per concert. It is now around $70 each. Perhaps financially they have to do that, but since I may not renew even at the old price, it is probably unlikely that I will do it at the new price. And there are always people wanting to sell tickets outside the concert hall anyway, on the rare occasion that I want to see a performance.