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.