Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Viviane Hagner, violin. April 28, 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.

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