Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Falstaff. December 21, 2013.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle (Seat G204, $47.50.)

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor – James Levine; Dr. Caius – Carlo Bosi, Sir John Falstaff – Nicola Alaimo, Bardolfo – Keith Jameson, Pistola – Christian van Horn, Meg Page – Jennifer Johnson Cano, Alice Ford – Angela Meade, Mistress Quickly – Stephanie Blythe, Nannetta – Lisette Oropesa, Fenton – Paolo Fanale, Ford – Franco Vassallo.

Anne and I saw an NYCO production of this opera in 2008, I frankly didn’t remember much about that experience.  A review of the blog entry reveals my generally positive experience with the performance.

I got a ticket for today’s show for several reasons.  James Levine has returned to limited duties as a conductor, I would like to see how he does.  Anne has a meeting in Flushing in the afternoon so I wanted to have something to do.  Finally, there were still a few reasonable seats (price and location) left when I enquired about the performance.

My seat didn’t provide a good view of the orchestra pit, so I don’t know if Levine was already seated when the performance began.  There was a prolonged applause for the audience, probably a show of support and appreciation for the return of the maestro.

Levine generally led a crisp and spirited performance.  The singing carried well into where I was seated.  My one issue is with the balance of the voices.  Stephanie Blythe has such a strong voice that made all the others sound relatively weak in comparison.  I sometimes wonder if for the sake of the overall performance if she should dial it down a little.  This reminds of my remark about Domingo who as Giorgio in La Traviata really impressed with being such a great “team player.”  Nonetheless, the great voices of the other singers managed to come through.  I was especially impressed with Oropesa in the role of Nanetta.  In some ways her voice outshone those of Meade and Cano.

The sets here are quite elaborate compared to what I remembered of the NYCO production.  The gentleman (from South Africa) sitting next to me and I were both wondering if Falstaff was in the laundry basket was inside when its contents got dumped from the window.  We both decided there had to be a trap door.

There was quite a bit of ensemble music, and often I couldn’t tell who was singing which line.  This was compounded by the fact that the LED panel for subtitles was in my direct line of sight to the stage, making the words difficult to read.  So I lost some of the timing.  I have to say the translator did a great job, as the lines often rhyme.  (Perhaps Shakespeare wrote it that way?)

All the misgivings notwithstanding, this was a delightful performance.  Falstaff gestured to the orchestra pit as Levine couldn’t make it up to the stage.  The applause was enthusiastic, deservedly.  The New York Times review is uncharacteristically lengthy, going into many aspects of the production and the cast.  The reviewer thought there may have been some opening night jitters; if those are settled in subsequent shows, he thinks the opera will “enter the annals of opera history.”

Friday, December 20, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Andrew Manze, conductor. December 18, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 2 (Seat Q1, $40.)

Messiah (1741) by Handel (1685-1759).

Joelle Harvey, soprano; Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano; Allan Clayton, tenor; Matthew Rose, Bass
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller, Director
Continuo: Eric Bartlett, cello; Satoshi Okamoto, bass; Kim Laskowski, Bassoon; Kent Tritle, organ; Paolo Bordignon, harpsichord
Matthew Muckey, trumpet

We got these rather good seats at half-price from Goldstar.  The Philharmonic is repeating this program five times, many other organizations are also performing the Messiah this time of the year, it is quite amazing the attendance is still pretty good.  And evidently the audience is not limited to Christians. For example, quite a few people were wearing yarmulkas.  It is either the holiday spirit, or people are there for the great music.

Even though today is another “gridlock alert” day, we decided to drive in as taking the train would mean getting home after midnight.  We left at about 4:15 pm and got to the West Side at around 5:30 pm.  And we found free off-street parking.  With the closure of China Fun and Ollie’s, we weren’t sure where to grab a quick dinner.  We did find a Chinese restaurant serving “Szechuan” food on 72th.

The full Messiah is over 2 hours long.  I think for tonight’s performance they skipped some sections, and the entire program, including a 30-minute intermission, was a little less than 2 ½ hours.  About half an hour into the program, the conductor paused.  At first we were wondering what was happening, it turns out they were letting late comers come in.  Some people were complaining, shouting “apologize to the orchestra;” others were saying “it’s alright.”  New York Philharmonic’s usual practice would be to have the late comers miss the entire first half.  In this tug-of-war between not disturbing something in progress and being accommodating, I usually go with the former – I have been denied entrance a few times. This is the Christmas season, so perhaps we can be a bit more generous.  The interruption did affect the artists a bit, in my opinion; they eventually recovered though.

I went with the aim of just enjoying this great composition, and managed to do that.  All the soloists did well.  The only one I heard before was Mumford who I remember as one of the Rhinemaidens in the recent Ring Cycle.  The choir consisted (mostly) of college students, and did well technically.  Though Manze conducted with enthusiasm, he also elicited a controlled performance from the artists.  I would have preferred one that was a bit freer; but have no issue with how he interpreted it.

The Playbill gives a description of the three sections of the oratorio: (1) the prophecy of Christ’s coming and the circumstances of his birth; (2) the vicissitudes of his life on earth; and (3) the events surrounding the Resurrection and the promise of redemption.  Evidently Handel finished the entire composition in three weeks.  It also talks about the various theories on why people stand up for the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and says “in the spirit of democracy we leave it up to [the individual.]” All the soloists stood up, and most in the audience did also.  The gentleman wearing the yarmulke didn’t, Anne didn't stand up, and in solidarity I remained in my seats  Afterwards Anne explained to me her back was hurting so she didn’t want to aggravate it by jumping up.

Our trip back home was uneventful.  There was a little bit of a tie-up on 12th, turns out it was due to cars lining up for the car wash, a first for us.

(Note added Jan 17.)  I didn't expect to find a New York Times review on this oft-repeated program, but here it is.  The reviewer enjoyed especially the soloist, although she had good things to say about everyone, except those who chose to leave early, and the person who coughed throughout one of the arias.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Metropolitan Opera – Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. December 13, 2013.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony (Seat B116, $100.50.)

Conductor – Edward Gardner; Octavian – Daniela Sindram, The Marshallin (Princess von Werdenberg) – Martina Serafin, Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Runi Brattaberg, Annina – Jane Henschel, Valzacchi – Hohn Graham-Hall, Faninal – Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, Sophie – Erin Morley.

Story.  Octavian is asked by Baron Ochs to deliver a silver rose to Sophie as a token for their engagement.  Octavian and Sophie fall in love when they see each other.  Sophie then finds out Baron Ochs is a crude older fellow and doesn’t want to marry him.  A scheme is then hatched to get the Baron in a compromising situation and he leaves the scene, thus allowing Octavian and Sophie’s relationship to continue.  There are a couple of side stories also.  One is that Octavian was originally the lover of the older Marshallin who accepts and encourages Octavian to be with Sophie.  Also, Sophie’s father Faninal really wanted his daughter to marry into royalty and was willing to give up a lot, including her happiness, to do so.  He eventually changed his mind.

There is this reference to too much of a good thing.  And then there is, simply, too much of a thing.  Today is somewhat in the latter category.  A 4 ½ opera following a 45 minute tone poem by Strauss will make one feel that.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

We had a few hours between the New York Philharmonic concert and this Opera, so we went down to Chinatown, walked around a bit, had a simple dinner, and it was time to head back.  I seldom go to Chinatown nowadays, it seems to be much cleaner and orderly than the Chinatown I remembered.  Perhaps the below-freezing temperature was a cause?  Luckily it wasn’t windy.

The concert didn’t start on an auspicious note.  First we were handed these small slips saying both the roles of Octavian and Baron Ochs would be sung by substitutes, the singers originally programmed (Geraldine Chauvet and Peter Rose) were ill.  There was another substitution announced on stage, the Singer Eric Cutler would be replaced (I forget the replacement’s name, one with a Chinese name.)  There were quite a few empty seats at 7 pm, the start time.  Perhaps to be expected as this was the last performance for this opera this season, this was the year-end shopping season, and it was very cold.  The orchestra was seated, but nothing happened for 15 or so minutes.  A couple of announcements came on to say the concert would be delayed due to technical problems with the set, and that the show would commence “in a few minutes.”  All in all the start was delayed by about 30 minutes, resulting in an end time of around midnight.  On the bright side, I got to finish the Synopsis and the Program Notes.

I had not slept well the last few evenings due to a lingering cough, and Anne started the day at 9 am.  We both had to work hard to stay awake during the first Act.  I eventually conquered my sleepiness; I am quite sure Anne kept dozing off despite being able to sit quite still.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t get to enjoy some aspects of the opera.  The opera is mainly a comedy, and as comedic operas go it is reasonably effective.  As the Playbill says, some elements are slapstick, some are more subtle; and I find the slapsticks one quite tastefully done.  But there are a couple of other aspects illustrated by the “side stories.”  One was the Princess’s resignation and acceptance of her inability to hang on to Octavian due to her being much older than him; this was done with a moving poignancy.  The other was how snobbish the Baron was and how Faninal was willing to sacrifice her daughter’s happiness to move up the societal ladder.

The music was uncharacteristically easy to listen to, and the orchestra put in a great performance.  The well-known waltz from this opera, it turns out, is an adaptation as an orchestral piece (evidently done with the blessing of Strauss).  In the opera it was never played from start to finish; we only get various snippets of it, mostly associated with the Baron.  It is a good thing that this waltz was not the only reason we wanted to see this opera.

The singing was surprisingly weak, with a few exceptions.  I do not know the last-minute replacements, perhaps they are great singers in their own right, but both Octavian and the Baron sounded a bit on the wooden side.  The low notes sung by the Baron actually didn’t carry at all into the balcony.  There are many singing roles (I only listed what I consider the main characters), and the substitute for Eric Cutler did quite well, although he had only two passages.

The role of Octavian, a young lad of seventeen, is sung by a mezzo-soprano.  He (she?) sings many duets and trios with the two leading ladies, and I find the arrangement very confusing.  To make things worse, Octavian at some point disguised himself as a chambermaid.  So you have a situation where a woman playing the role of the man disguising himself as a woman – I think I got that right – and I was hopelessly lost.  And the costumse didn’t try to conceal the fact that the artist is a woman either.

The Playbill talks about a “famous final trio, a gorgeous blend of female voices that is among the supreme accomplishments of lyric theater,” which I unfortunately don’t quite appreciate to such a degree.  A couple of other interesting tidbits: one is the pause between “younger” and “prettier” that reflects the Princess’s mindset, I think it is lost in translation; the other is the words “ja, ja” added by Strauss so the Princess gets to say something in a particular scene, that I got.

The three sets used are all traditional, depicting the opulence of Vienna at the time.  And the costumes were also period, which I appreciated.  However, there were very few moving parts to the sets other than curtains and doors, so I couldn’t figure out what the technical programs at the beginning could possibly be.  Anne overheard during intermission that the sets are about 50 years old (actually they were first used in 1969, per the New York Times), that may explain all the nail pounding we heard between acts.

So my reaction to the opera is mixed.  What I couldn’t tell was whether it was the performance or my not being as sharp as I could be.  For the few people who read this blog that think I am over-critical, my remarks are downright enthusiastic compared to the gentleman sitting in front of me.  He thought the artists could neither sing nor act.  The New York Times review of an earlier performance (with many different cast members) was effusive.  Perhaps I should see this again (and I can hear Anne saying “noooooo.”)

Given the late start and the length of the opera, and that there was still much traffic in New York City at midnight, it was well past 1 am when we got home.

New York Philharmonic – Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, conductor. December 13, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 1 (Seat G111, $46.25.)

Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1811-1812) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40 (1897-98) by R. Strauss (1864-1949).

Today is going to be a double-header.  For various reasons – one of which is to avoid NYC gridlock during the holiday season - we decided to move our tickets for Der Rosenkavalier to coincide with this afternoon concert.  It ended up being a rather long day, especially for Anne: she left the house at 9 am for her class, and didn’t get home until 1 am.  More on that in the next blog.

James Keller, the New York Philharmonic program annotator, can’t seem to make up his mind whether there are real distinctions between Beethoven’s odd- and even-numbered symphonies; for today’s notes he uses the term “more intimate celebrations.”  However, it is quite clear that the Eighth didn’t catch on as quickly as Beethoven’s other symphonies, one factor was it had the “misfortune” of being premiered together with the Sixth and Seventh.

If I had been a music critic at that time, I would have a hard time finding things not to like about the symphony.  It was generally light-hearted, with nice tunes, and – to the modern ear – easy to follow, even though it may be have radical for its time.  All in all, a great appetizer for today's concert.  The four movements are Allegro vivace e con brio, Allegretto scherzando, Tempo di Menuetto, and Allegro vivace.

I consider Strauss a difficult composer for the average audience member (i.e., me), and find it interesting that he is quite popular among concert programmers.  I have seen three of his operas (Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Egyptische Helena, and Capriccio), and each time came away scratching my head to various degrees.  His tone poems (Also sprach Zarathustra being the latest one) are a bit easier to grasp, especially if there are programs associated with them.

It speaks to Strauss's ego that he thought it was time to write a musical tribute to himself at age 34.  The 45 or so minute piece is performed non-stop and spans the hero’s entire life: The Hero – The Hero’s Adventures – The Hero’s Companion – The Hero’s Deeds of War – The Hero’s Works of Peace – The Hero’s Retirement.  Even though that was the extent of the program, the differences from one section to the other were marked enough that I could tell what part of his life I was listening to.  Even though a large orchestra was used – including “an imposing 18-member brass section” – I didn’t find the music particularly loud, especially given our seats in the front.  And I didn’t notice our violist using her earplugs either.

The concertmaster had quite a few solos to play, mostly in The Hero’s Companion section.  The passages are quite difficult.  Glenn Dicterow didn’t have any trouble with the technique, although I continue to quibble with his sound.

From my prior blogs I noticed that I had heard de Burgos conduct about a year ago.  He evidently used a chair at that concert, but got up quite often.  I also remarked that he was in his early eighties.  Turns out he turned 80 earlier this year.  And whatever ailed him last year went away: he stood, and did his job with gusto and lots of rather exaggerated arm movements.  There is an article in the Playbill where many NY Phil players sang his praises.  I am sure that is all true.

The New York Times review was a bit critical on how The Hero’s Life was performed, but loved how Dicterow played.  The reviewer also made the remark that the Philharmonic’s sound has turned “bright and unsubtle, with a glimmer of metal.”  I wonder if I would notice the change if I pay more attention.

Friends of Mozart: Chamber Music on Period Instruments. December 11, 2013.

Christ and St. Stephens Episcopal Church, W 69th Street, New York.

Trio in G major, K. 564, for fortepiano, violin, and cello (1786) by W. A. Mozart (1756-1791).
Sonata in A major, K. 526, for fortepiano and violin (1787).
Trio in B-flat major, K. 502, for fortepiano, violin, and cello (1786).

Theresa Salomon, violin.
Lindy Clarke, cello.
Yi-heng Yang, fortepiano.

We went up with Agnes, Eric, and Kimberly.  The drive back took quite a while.

Friday, December 06, 2013

New York Philharmonic – David Zinman, conductor; Richard Goode, piano. December 5, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 2 (Seat Q20, $22.)

Three Studies from Couperin (2006) by Thomas Ades (b. 1971).
Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, K.456 (1784) by Mozart (1756-91).
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, Scottish (1840-42) by Mendelssohn (1809-47).

Going to this concert was a last-minute decision.  Goldstar had them at half price, and the seats we got, in the "Orchestra 2" section, were quite reasonable.

We had only one prior encounter with Francois Couperin (1668-1733), at a pre-concert recital for a Mostly Mozart concert this summer, and I had forgotten all about it, except that the lute was also used in that pre-concert.

The British composer Ades is a self-acknowledged fan of Couperin who considers staying at home playing his harpsichord music to be a perfect day.  He orchestrated three movements of Couperin’s, each the last movement from an “ordre,” and grouped them as the Three Studies.  They are (i) Les amusements (The Amusements) from the Seventh Ordre (in G major) in Couperin’s Second Book of Harpsichord Pieces (1717); (ii) Les Tours de Passe-passe (The Sleight-of-Hand), final movement of the Twenty-Second Ordre (in D major), Fourth Book (1730); and (iii) L’Ame-en-peine (The Soul in Distress), Thirteenth Ordre (B minor), Third Book (1722).

While the ensemble that played the pieces was small, it was quite complicated as befits the work of a contemporary composer.  For example, there are two string orchestras of 16 players each.  The music is a mixture of baroque and modern, with emphasis on the former.  It would be interesting to compare the orchestrated version with the harpsichord version.  For Study 2, the Program Notes talks about how a descending melody comes out in the harpsichord while the music calls for hand  crossings (thus its title “Sleight-of-hand.”)  However, in the orchestrated version such “trickery” isn’t needed.  Overall it was an enjoyable introduction to the evening.

Two surprising things about the Mozart performance are (i) the soloist needed the music; and (ii) I hadn’t heard it before.  While (ii) may simply speak to my ignorance, (i) is quite unusual, especially for Mozart piano concertos.  Three standard movements make up the 24-minute composition: Allegro (vivace), Andante un poco sostenuto, and Allegro vivace.  Goode, whom we saw for the first time, put in a good performance (and I can't tell if was a great performance).  The concerto is typical Mozartean, crisp and light for the most part.  There is a rather long discussion in the Playbill about whether Maria Theresia Paradies premiered it.  Nothing unusual, except that Paradies was blind, and if she indeed was the premiere soloist, she might only have had (proper grammar?) two days to practice.

The concerto was composed during a period Mozart was extremely popular.  The Playbill references two aspects that I didn’t catch.  One was that the “anxious but not depressing” second-movement theme may have prefigured Barbarina’s aria in Act 4 of The Marriage of Figaro.  The other was a short episode in the third movement where a mixed meter (6/8 and 2/4) was used.

The last time the New York Philharmonic played Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony was in 2004, so we can conclude it isn’t a popular piece in the organizations repertoire. I was in Hong Kong last December, and attended a Hong Kong Philharmonic concert that had this and the other Scottish piece by Mendelssohn on the program (The Hebrides.)

The Symphony is easy to like, and one could tell it is Scottish (especially after knowing its title.)  The Playbill quotes the following entries from Mendelssohn’s letter during his visit to Scotland: “Yesterday was a lovely day, … red heather in blossom,” and “Our host’s beautiful daughter ... newest herrings… swam about in the water.”  It also describes listeners to the Symphony as “… happy to hear its flavor as authentically Scottish in spirit, replete with pentatonic melody sparkling rhythm, and, in its fast movements, an infectious warmth.”

All good, and indeed that was how I felt during the performance.  And I was greatly puzzled.

I recall the sentiment described in the Hong Kong writeup was quite different from what I read in the New York writeup.  Indeed going back to my notes, Mendelssohn’s remark about the landscape was “barren, rugged, unforgiving,” the people “unfriendly, drinking all the time.”  While I did say in that Blog that the music didn’t sound as bleak, it was nonetheless on the darker side.

So what gives?  I am either easily swayed, or there are drastically different ways to interpret any given composition.  As I type this, I am listening to a Youtube clip of the first movement performed by the New Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti.  It was more along the bleak end of the spectrum.

 The four movements are (i) Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato; (ii) Vivace non troppo; (iii) Adagio; and (iv) Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai.  While they were marked – and performed – "without pause," there were sufficient changes from one movement to the next that a pause would have been acceptable.  And they would have allowed me to let out some of the coughing I had to suppress during the 40 or so minutes.  It was a good thing that lozenges helped.

David Zinman, whom we have seen on several prior occasions, was quite effusive in his conducting.  This is his last season with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra.  He looked extremely energetic for a 77-year old.

The concert wasn’t well-attended, even with the Philharmonic reducing the prices on its website and the availability of further discounts by Goldstar and (I assume) similar outfits.  I hope it is because of the shopping season.

To the New York Times review writer, it was nearly all good.  She had some minor quibble with how Goode wasn't crisp enough in some Mozart passages, and how the orchestra might have been a bit too cautious.

Monday, December 02, 2013

New Jersey Symphony – Jacques Lacombe, conductor; Adam Golka, piano. December 1, 2013.

State Theatre in New Brunswick, Front Orchestra (Seat D5, $36.)

Barcarolles for a Sinking City (2013) by Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961).
Piano Concerto in G Major (1929-31) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123 (1942-43, rev. 1945) by Bartok (1881-1945).

We purchased these tickets, at half price, from Amazon Local.  At their regular prices these seats, located in the fourth row on the front left, would be quite expensive; they were good value for the price we paid, though.

I do not go to a New Jersey Symphony concert with high expectations; however, today’s performance was entirely satisfactory.  This is especially gratifying given our seats in front of the third row of first violinists, and that the piano sound was surprisingly weak even though it was quite close to us.  But let us get back to the program first …

While I have been to several NJSO concerts before, this is the first time I saw its music director Lacombe, a youngish (at 50 years) Canadian who has led the orchestra since 2010.  He began the program by talking about the compositions for the first half of the program at length.  Both Anne and I found what he said illuminating – Anne even took some notes.  The remarks helped, especially with the first piece of the program.

The phrase “Sinking City” naturally makes one think of Venice.  Indeed the Lieberman piece was composed with that in mind (the thought that it could be about Superstorm Sandy also crossed my mind).  Between the Program Notes and Lacombe’s remarks I learned the following: Lieberman’s music is surprisingly tonal for a contemporary composer; he lives in Weehawken, NJ, right across the Hudson from New York City; the piece is premiered at this series of concerts.  The program – such as it is – for the composition is (i) Funeral Gondola, evokes how Wagner’s body was transported from Venice to Bayreuth; (ii) Barcarolle/Quodlibet is described by Lacombe as a “name that tune” movement as it quotes many popular tunes (I don’t remember him saying it, but I assume they have to do with Venice?); (iii) Barcarolle/Ostinato/Carillon evokes the music of a music box; and (iv) Barcarolle Qubliee describes the fading away of the city.  Well, that’s what I remember of what he said.  In general, the music was quite easy to understand, and pleasant to listen to.  So happens Anne and I were TV channel surfing the night before and saw the end of Casino Royale where a gun battle in Venice caused an entire building to collapse violently into the sea.  The fourth movement was nothing like that.

Lieberman came out to take a bow afterwards.  Surprisingly the audience’s applause was such that there was not a second curtain call.  The other surprise was myself.  Over the years I have been exposed to many modern pieces, my general reaction has been from “it was a mistake to come” to lukewarm at best.  Thus I have always wondered what a “classical” composition by a modern composer would sound like.  If today’s work is any indication, then perhaps modern composers should stick to writing modern pieces, while not emotionally appealing, they are at least intellectually so.

Golka is 26 years old and his picture in the Program shows a youthful face.  In person he looks quite a bit more mature – helped by thinning hair, no doubt; he is a tall man, and his knees touch the piano.  That didn’t seem to put any limitations on how “flexible” he was, though.  The Ravel piece was no doubt demanding technically – glissandos, cross-overs, double octaves, rapid runs, … He had no trouble with any of those.  I did remark the piano sounded weak, most likely because it was at an oblique angle to us and our proximity to the left side of the orchestra.  Probably because of that weak sound, I can’t say I was extremely impressed, but it was an enjoyable performance.  The 20 some minute piece consists of three movements: Allegramente, Adagio assai, and Presto.

Four years ago, I heard David Fray play the same piece with the New York Philharmonic.  Of course I don’t remember any specifics from that performance.  I did read the blog entry for that concerto and found out what I wrote about the piece and performance generally carried over to today.  While that review wasn’t all positive, I do take it as a positive sign: I go away with a similar evaluation of a NJSO performance with a NYP one.  Of course by doing so I may have managed to insult both organizations.

The Program Notes indicates that Lacombe cut his teeth on the Bartok piece.  This is again a piece I had heard a couple of times before, performed by the NYP.  I generally enjoyed this piece which wasn’t quite congruent with the dire situation Bartok was in (he would die of leukemia soon afterwards, and was in some financial difficulty at the time he composed the work.)  The five movements are (i) Introduzione: Andante non troppo – Allegro vivace; (ii) Giuocco delle coppie: Allegretto scherzando; (iii) Elegia: Andante non troppo; (iv) Intermesso interrotto: Allegretto; and (v) Finale: Pesante – Presto.  It was not surprising that Lacombe didn’t need the music score; it was somewhat surprising that there were long pauses between movements.  Again at the risk of offending both organizations, I thought today’s performance was as good as my previous encounters with the music.

During the intermission there was a “meet the musician” event where several orchestra members stayed behind to chat with the audience.  Not too many conversations were going on, as far as I could tell.  Another remark is the State Theatre which is no doubt seeing its best days through its 100 or so year history.  The only other event at this theater we attended was when Ellie graduated from UMDNJ in 2009.  It seats 1800, and has reasonable acoustics.

NJSO had a black Friday sale and I bought tickets to five concerts.  While the prices were great ($32 per ticket including fees), I was nonetheless not sure if it would be a waste of money.  Given today’s experience, I now believe I got a great deal.

Friday, November 22, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor. November 21, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat G101, $54.)

Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31 (1943) by Britten (1913-76).
Spring Symphony, Op. 44 (1948-49) by Britten.

Philip Myers, horn; Kate Royal, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano, Michael Slattery, tenor; Dominic Armstrong, tenor; New York Choral Artists – Joseph Flummerfelt, director; Brooklyn Youth Chorus – Dianne Berkum-Menaker, director.

Somehow there seem to be more Britten celebrations for his 100th birthday than there are for Verdi’s and Wagner’s 200th.  I purchased these tickets before I went to the (non-subscription) Singapore Symphony concert (where his piano concerto was played) and the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both in October.)  If I had all this planned out in advance, I probably would not have gotten tickets to this concert, thinking I would be “Brittened out” by now.  An awkward way of saying, “but that would be a mistake.”

Also, I wouldn’t have heard Gilbert’s introduction to the program.  I had already gotten an email saying that the original tenor slated for the program, Paul Appleby, withdrew and would be replaced by two different tenors for the two compositions.  So it was “blah blah blah” as Gilbert talked about how they scrambled to look for replacements.  I think everyone’s ears perked up when he said one of them only saw the music for the first time the night before.  If Gilbert was looking for sympathy from the audience, it wasn’t necessary; I certainly wouldn’t have realized that was the case.  I walked away impressed, but more on that later.

The last two Britten performances (piano concerto and opera) were a bit beyond me, even though I enjoyed them.  Tonight’s two pieces restored my faith that I do get Britten’s music, albeit at a possibly superficial level.

The Serenade, written for a solo horn, a solo tenor, and a string orchestra, was particularly easy to understand and appreciate.  It began and concluded with a solo by Philip Myers, the Philharmonic’s principal horn.  The beginning was a bit shaky as Myers seemed to have some problems with hitting and holding the correct pitches.  I also worried if he was going to affirm the reputation (or rather notoriety) of the brass section being too loud.  Things greatly improved as the 25 minute piece progressed, though.

In addition to the solo horn prolog and epilog (the latter being played offstage), the selections in the Seranade are (i) Pastoral – The Evening Quatrains by Charles Cotton; (ii) Nocturne – Blow, Bugle, Blow by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; (iii) Elegy – The Sick Rose by William Blake; (iv) Dirge – Anonymous; (v) Hymn – Hymn to Diana by Ben Johnson; and (vi) Sonnet – To Sleep by John Keats.  While the Program Notes describes the general narrative as depicting night and the tricks it conjures, I heard it mostly as a reminder of death (the titles of the last three poems make that quite clear.)  Indeed I thought in addition to the bucolic and restful imagery, the work is infused with resignation and sadness.  The words to Dirge actually remind me of the lullaby “Hush little baby don’t say a word.”

I was a bit surprised that I picked a seat in Row G when I ordered the tickets.  Turns out Row G is the second row as the stage was extended to accommodate the large ensembles for the Symphony.  The string orchestra was small enough that we could see beyond the outermost lineup of members.  However, we were very close to the horn and relatively far from the tenor.  The balance was still okay (except for the beginning noted above.)

The Symphony was complex as the Serenade was simple.  In addition to a full orchestra with its accoutrement of exotic percussion instruments, the Symphony also calls for three solo voices, a chorus, and a children’s chorus.

I suspect most people were like me: wondering how the tenor Armstrong would do.  In my case it became a non-issue soon after things got started: it sounded as if the piece was in his standard repertoire.  Now there was this young man (assistant conductor Case Scaglione?) sitting in the first row with the full music score who would give Armstrong cues every now and then, but I suspect that was a backup plan that ended up being only marginally necessary.

This work reminds me a bit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in that the music is probably much more complex than it sounds.  I walked away enjoying the tunes, the interplay of the different parts, and the story (such as it was) conveyed by the words.  I also suspect I will gain new insight into how Britten put it together if I listen to it again.  Britten draws a parallel between his musicianship and that of Mahler’s and how he appreciates Mahler’s sense of form, using this symphony and the Requiem as examples.  I didn’t get that, and certainly won’t mistake this as something written by Mahler, whose music never sounds simple to me.

The Symphony’s mood is set by the poems selected, and by a “particularly lovely Spring day in East Suffolk, the Suffolk of Constable and Gainsborough.”  The 45-minute work is divided into four parts, each part in turn contains several poems.  Part I – Introduction: (i) Shine Out by Anonymous, (ii) The Merry Cuckoo by Edmund Spenser; (iii) Spring by Thomas Nashe; (iv) Whenas the Rye/The Driving Boy by George Peele/John Clare; (v) The Morning Star (On May Morning) by John Milton.  Part II: (i) Welcome Maids of Honour (To Violets) by Robert Herrick; (ii) Waters Above (The Shower) by Henry Vaugh; (iii) Out on the lawn I lie in bed by W. H. Auden.  Part III: (i) When will my May come? by Richard Barnfield; (ii) Fair and Fair (Song of Oenone and Paris) by George Peele; (iii) Sound the Flute! (Spring) by William Blake.  Part IV – Finale: (i) London, to thee I do present by Francis Beaumont/John Fletcher; (ii) Soomer is i-coomen in by Anonymous.  At the conclusion there were some words about “Long live the king” and “Death to treasoners” that weren’t in the Program Notes.  They are still question marks in my mind.

The artists all did well, without the horn hoarding the acoustic space, the balance was quite satisfactory.  With so much squeezed into 45 minutes, there wasn’t a role that was particularly outstanding, though.  The other interesting thing is while Britten’s music generally has a distinct tune (or several going on simultaneously,) it is atonal in that there is no definite key to it.  I was remarking to myself how would I know if the singers are off, singing in the wrong key?  Of course in some places we have traditional harmonies, but in many instances it is more a contrapuntal relationship among the voices.

Much to Anne’s surprise, and somewhat to my own, I really enjoyed this concert.  Attendance was reasonable; however, many of the seats with these “Subscriber Appreciation Letters” pinned on them were not occupied – we did claim our gift of some holiday cards.  I am sure the subsequent performances will get better as the “stand-ins” get more comfortable; I wish them well.

Here is the New York Times review.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Liang Wang, oboe. November 15, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Q19, $41.)

Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888) by R. Strauss (1864-1949).
Oboe Concerto (2004) by Christopher Rouse (b. 1949).
Also sprach Zarathustra, Tone Poem for Large Orchestra, Op. 30 (1895-1896) by Strauss.

Speaking of shallow, I wanted to go to this concert because of the first few measures of “Also sprach” which was made famous by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The part played in the film is about 1:30 minutes in length.  That discounted tickets were offered on Goldstar clinched it.  Anne, ever the trooper, agreed to come along even though she had to rush out after her class.

A review of my prior blog entries confirmed that I had listened to Don Juan before.  While today’s performance didn’t leave me awed, it was certainly quite well performed – I called the September 24, 2010 performance “muddled and chaotic.”  I still couldn’t figure out how many women were depicted in the composition, though.

Rouse is in his second year as composer-in-residence at the Philharmonic.  This oboe concerto was written in 2004.  In the Playbill Rouse says his work can be classified roughly into “somber” and “genial,” with the Oboe Concerto falling into the latter category.  Liang Wang has been with the Philharmonic since 2006, and we certainly have heard the sound of his oboe many times before.  We also saw him in a chamber music concert at the 92Y a couple of years back.  What we heard today was a confirmation of his virtuosity.  I still recall when in college someone talking about the oboe playing a passage of 38 measures in one breath (forgot what was said about the tempo.)  It was amazing that Wang’s face didn’t turn red more often than it did.  Since I know little about the oboe other than its sound, I don’t know what other virtuoso techniques there are to the instrument.  He certainly had a lot of fast staccato passages, which is probably difficult with any instrument.  The other thing that was interesting is how the solo part would come through against a rather large orchestra, even accounting for lack of oboes in the orchestra section.

Again looking back at my notes, I enjoyed listening to Rouse’s symphony (No. 3, played on June 20, 2013.)  I did attribute that enjoyment to the composer’s overall description of the plot.  Alas, such a description doesn’t exist for today’s concert: even he says “there is no overt program to this piece.”  Now he does say the five-note chord played by the strings is the key; unfortunately I wasn’t paying attention at the start.  Rouse again uses movement markings that I don’t find particularly helpful: (i) Sereno – Molto allegro; (ii) ♪ = 50; (iii) Subito ♪ = 176 - ♪ = 50.  The movements were played without pause.

Also sprach Zarathrustra was inspired by Nietzsche’s book of the same title.  Nietsche’s generally pessimistic philosophy, other than perhaps “god is dead,” is beyond me.  Strauss did provide a structure for his composition, which is (i) Sunrise, (ii) Of those of the Unseen World, (iii) Of the Great Longing, (iv) Of Joy and Passions, (v) The Dirge, (vi) Of Science, (vii) The Convalescent, (viii) Dance Song, and (ix) Night Wanderer’s Song.  “Sunrise” was the familiar 1:30 introduction to the piece that brought me to the concert.  I am embarrassed that I couldn’t associate the music with the program after that.  Actually the Sunrise was also the most dramatic part of the piece, it was as they say all down hill from there.

In Gilbert’s notes for today’s program, he talks about Glenn Dicterow’s influence on him and the orchestra during the 30-some years he has been the concertmaster.  Dicterow is the one who picked the two Strauss pieces as “ iconic works for the concertmaster.”  I am sure he is a great musician, effective leader, and contributed majorly to the sustained prominence of the New York Philharmonic as a world-class orchestra during his tenure.  However, I really haven’t been very impressed by him either as a soloist or playing solo lines as concertmaster.  Today he sounded particularly weak.

The New York Times review talks mostly about the Rouse piece and how Wang nailed it.  The reviewer also liked Dicterow's playing.

Anne and I met up at the Cheeesquake rest area and drove in.  Traffic was a breeze.  We decided to come back to New Jersey right away after the concert, not wanting to contend with Friday night traffic.  Some trees fell onto the helix coming out of Lincoln Tunnel, so traffic was backed up all the way – for us the drive from 66th to the tunnel (a little over a mile) took two hours.  That certainly put a damper on our evening’s plans.  I still enjoyed the Arthur Treacher’s dinner at Cheesequake, though.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

New York Philharmonic Open Rehearsal – Bernard Labadie, conductor; Miah Persson, soprano. November 7, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra Right ($0.)

Cantata No. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51 (1730) by J.S. Bach (1685-1750).
Let the Bright Seraphim,” from the oratorio Samson, HWV 57 (1742) by Handel (1685-1759).
Requiem, K.626 (1791; completed by Robert D. Levin, 1993) by Mozart (1756-91).

Miah Persson, soprano; Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano; Frederic Antoun, tenor; Andrew Foster-Williams, bass; Matthew Muckey, trumpet; New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, director.

CS asked us to come along to this open rehearsal and provided complimentary tickets for the event.  Since all we had to do was to get up early enough to catch the 8:12 am train into the city, we readily agreed.

It was an enjoyable and fun way to spend half a morning to see how the concert is put together.  For the most part, the conductor went through an entire piece before working on specific segments.  Thus the audience got the chance to hear the pieces played without interruption.  (He did do a few restarts on the Requiem.)

The Playbill contains some interesting facts about the compositions that are worth repeating.  The Cantata (Praise God in every nation) does not call for a chorus, with the soprano being the only voice heard; a rarity for Bach.  And Bach usually didn’t designate his compositions as cantatas; this is one of the few exceptions.  The biblical account of Samson ends with Samson destroying the temple, killing himself and many others in the process.  Handel chose to end the oratorio (“long and intense,” per Playbill) with a hopeful aria and chorus (“Let the Bright Seraphim” and “Let Their Celestial Concerts All Unite.”)

Many know the strange and sad story behind Mozart’s Requiem.  Even though it was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach through an anonymous message, most listeners associate the Requiem with Mozart’s own death.  The reality was Mozart was busy with his other compositions until shortly before his death, so he probably didn’t think much about his own mortality much, except at the end.  Mozart never completed the mass, reaching the beginning of Lacrimosa (about half way.)  There have been many attempts at completing this Requiem, with varying degrees of legitimacy.  The edition used for these performances was completed by Robert D. Levin in 1993.  This is stated matter-of-factly in the Playbill, but I find it unbelievable that a version completed so late is considered the most Mozartean – even though Levin did draw on a lot of prior work.

From what we heard in the rehearsal, the concert would have sounded great.  Even though we were warned that the vocalists may dial back a bit to save their vocal chords, they all sounded great.  Miah Persson has major roles in all three pieces (well, she is the only vocalist in the first two), and she sang strongly and beautifully.  I have always enjoyed Stephanie Blythe’s singing, and today was no exception.  Both the tenor and the bass were great.  Most of the singing in the Requiem was done by the chorus, and they sang beautifully throughout, amazingly in some instances.  The trumpet provided delightful obbligato lines for the Bach and Handel pieces.  (The Playbill gives equal billing to all the soloists, since I thought Perssons did a lot more work, I put her in the headline.)

We heard Labadie in March 2012 conducting Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Quebec in Carnegie Hall in a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. I was just so-so with that performance.  This time was very different.  He was engaged, I suspect some performers may say a bit too engaged, including some remarks he made about the chorus that made me wonder if Flummerfelt would be defensive about.  He was always good-natured about it, though, saying “thank you very much” again and again.

Since Labadie is supposed to be a baroque and classical specialist, it is not surprising that he didn’t need the score for the 55-minute long Mozart Requiem.  What I found incredible was how he remembered all the places he wanted to work on after running through the piece once.  And he started from the end, no less.

I do wonder if I would find the actual concert emotionally uplifting.  During this open rehearsal my feelings were limited to admiring the skill and professionalism of the people involved.  A quick check of the Philharmonic website indicated that all three concerts were sold out.  Let’s be honest, given I am not particularly enthusiastic about Bach or Mozart (what heresy), and given my prior exposure to Labadie, this concert probably wouldn’t make it on my radar.

The rehearsal took longer than I expected, lasting until 12:30 pm.  Most of the “reworks” on the Requiem had to do with the chorus, but the soloists had to remain on stage for all that time.  They seemed good-natured about it though.  Since I couldn’t hear Labadie consistently (even though we were seated up front), I had little idea what specifics he was trying to accomplish; yet I felt it would be very disruptive and disrespectful to leave, so we all sat there until the end.  It costs $18 for an open rehearsal ticket, and you can get a very good seat for that price; it makes one wonder if these are not preferable to the actual concerts themselves.

I was looking for a New York Times review of the performance.  Evidently none has been published as of November 9.  One was published on Nov 12.  The reviewer liked the performance, and gave explained how the new score by Levin is superior to the edition completed by Mozart's pupil Franz Xaver Sussmayr.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Leila Josefowicz, violin. November 5, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Second Tier Box Rear (Box 20F, Seat 16, $0).

Suite from Ma Mere l’Oye (Mother Goose, 1908-10; orch. 1911) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Violin Concerto (2008-09) by Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958).
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 (1912-19) by Sibelius (1865-1957).

I got an E-club mailing from New York Philharmonic when I was in Asia and talked to Anne every now and then about going for those discount tickets.  By the time we decided to go, it was this past Sunday.  The code we were given didn’t work, so we gave up on the concert.  Anne met up with CS Monday and talked about it, and he managed to get us two complimentary tickets.  One reason why seats were available this close to the concert probably was because the program was repeated on five different days; tonight’s concert was quite well attended, not sure how many of them were free or discounted, though.  Anne’s seat and mine were at opposite sides of the Second Tier, I moved to an empty seat next to hers after the intermission.

The only piece I had heard before – several times - was the Ravel Mother Goose piece, and I blogged about those performances.  It is a good thing I didn’t read those reviews beforehand; they may have biased me into thinking this would be another so-so piece.  Perhaps it was the detailed notes in the Playbill, maybe I was paying more attention, or it might be simply a better performance.  I enjoyed the piece as I followed along its description in the Playbill.  The original work was written for two youngsters (the children that premiered it were aged 7 and 8), but the orchestrated version needed a good ensemble to perform properly, which New York Phil certainly did tonight.  The five movements of the Suite are: Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty; Tom Thumb; Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas; Conversations of Beauty and the Beast; and Apotheosis, The Enchanted Garden.

The New York Phil website and the Playbill have a lot to say about the Salonen violin concerto.  After listening to it, Anne was amazed that such a complex piece could be played from memory, I was simply amazed.

Of all the modern violin pieces (one by Dutilleux comes to mind), this certainly is much easier to appreciate and enjoy on the first hearing.  While I didn’t catch any singable tunes in the piece, it sounded very tonal.  And the speed was simply unbelievable in some places.  It certainly demands a lot from the performer, but only asks for a limited set of virtuosic skills from her.  Nothing to be sneered at: the double stops, interval jumps and harmonics were mesmerizing.  However, I didn’t catch a lot of spiccatos or left-hand pizzicatos.

Had it not been for the detailed notes provided by Salonen, I would have been quite lost.  The piece has four movements: Mirage, Pulse I, Pulse II, and Adieu.  Several interesting facts from the writeup: (i) the piece begins with the violin sounding as if the music had been going on for some time already; (ii) in Mirage, all movement stops on the note D, (iii) Something very Californian in all this; and (iv) I felt confused.  Many of Salonen’s compositions have been proven to be quite popular, and this will probably be one of them.  While the piece certainly has its distinctive characteristics, for some reason at times I felt I was listening to Philip Glass, on steroids.  I also heard Salonen’s piano concerto a few years back.  A review of that blog indicates I wasn’t as impressed by that piece, although there are many parallels to how I feel about the two concertos.

This is the first time I saw Leila Josefowicz play; Anne thought she is heard quite frequently on WQXR.  She certainly sounded amazing, with impeccable techniques, and was very into the piece, even this was the fifth and last performance of the series.  She looked very young from my seat in Tier 2 (she’s 36), and is quite popular among composers.  I wonder how she would sound playing a more “traditional” piece.  She played a short encore that – alas – called for similar techniques as the Salonen concerto.

Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony was written as a commission by the Finnish Government to mark the composer’s fiftieth birthday – just like Salonen’s piece was written when he turned 50 (roughly).  Perhaps the parallels are intentional?  Compared to other Sibelius pieces I know, this Symphony sounded downright sunny.  It was rather short at about 30 minutes, and is in three movements (i) Tempo molto moderato – Allegro moderato; (ii) Andante mosso – quasi allegretto; and (iii) Allegro molto – Misterioso. As with the other two pieces, the rendition was precise and crisp, and I enjoyed it very much.  On the other hand, I was suffering from considerable jet lag, having returned from Hong Kong the night before, slept only five or so hours last night, so I did lose my concentration a bit here or there.  Thus it was a good thing the Symphony ended on “six widely separated and powerful chords.”

When I started the drive in, I felt quite tired and wondered about the wisdom of going to this concert.  I am glad we went.  Traffic was light both ways, we got home by 10:30 pm.  And we found free parking on 65th!

Here is the New York Times review; it is very positive.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Lorin Maazel conductor. November 2, 2013.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall.  Balcony (Seat E64, HK$480.)

Siegfried Idyll by Wagner.
The Ring Without Words by Wagner (arr. Maazel.)

I stumbled onto this event earlier this week.  While having lunch with George and Mana Leung we talked about ½ price tickets for seniors, and they expressed some interest in coming.  So the ticket I got was for full price, and we also got four half-price tickets (the other two for Stephen and Ruth), which is really a good deal.  If you are into Wagner, that is.

After many years and multiple concerts, my appreciation for Wagner has increased considerably.  And I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see how Maazel is doing since he left New York Philharmonic several years ago – I think I missed the several times he returned.  Having just sang praises to Singapore Symphony and knocking the country as a cultural desert at the same time, I wanted to do a quick comparison also.

I wasn’t disappointed.  For the most part, anyway.

With a title like “Siegfried Idyll” I naturally thought the piece was excerpted from the Ring, particularly so as many scenes where Siegfried appears are rather idyllic.  And that is quite wrong.  Turns out Wagner had a son with the former Cosima van Bulow named Siegfried, and this piece was written to celebrate his birth.  When premiered, it was played on the staircase inside Wagner’s house.  That explained why the ticket had the notation “1st piece will be performed at Foyer” on it: the intent was to replicate that first performance.  It was written for an ensemble of thirteen instruments; and it didn’t quite work this evening.  I think the major reason is the foyer of the Cultural Center is cavernous, which would produce a sound effect very different from a much more intimate household setting.  There was no way to balance the strings (one player for each part) with the woodwinds and brasses.  Perhaps by putting the string players at the lower end of the staircase instead of the upper landing would give them some acoustic support; as it was the strings were often drowned out by the other instruments.  The piece itself sounded as one expect: soft and pleasant melodies, no climaxes to speak off (you don’t want to wake up the baby!), and more traditional harmony-wise.  If it was leitmotif based, I certainly didn’t get it.

One could also reasonably conclude the HKPO has gone overboard with being international.  Of the thirteen players, only the two violins and the viola were Chinese (Hong Kong or Mainland), the other ten were non-Asians.  Turns out most of the string players in the full orchestra were Asian, and the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections were split.  There were also three harps, but I couldn’t tell given where we sat.

After having seen the Ring cycle several times, I have a reasonably good grasp of the leitmotifs and the story.  And the Program Notes contains good synopses of the operas and description of the adaptation, so for me it was reasonably easy to stay on track – I still got lost every now and then.

I am sure I have heard this piece before, but couldn’t find a reference of it in my blog, so I am either mistaken, or I did hear it a long time ago.  In any case, I knew it was an “abridged Ring” in that the adaptation tells the story of the Ring.  Perhaps someone who knows the story would love it, I wasn’t sure how a first time Wagner listener would react.  I thought the music acquitted itself very well in that regard also.  It hangs together musically, and there is a narrative if you care to find it.

The orchestra is huge (around 100 musicians) with particularly large woodwind, brass, and percussion sections.  So it could be deafeningly loud sometimes.  Some good (bad?) examples are the Nibelungs forging on anvils, and the makeshift hammer blow when Fafner killed Fasolt.  They certainly performed well, most of the time.  Towards the end they seemed to have lost some concentration (understandable, but not quite excusable) but they got back on track at the end.  I found myself moved by the music, especially by some episodes such as Siegmund and Sieglinde meeting together, Brunnhilde talking to Wotan before her punishment, and the immolation scene with the constant timpani drum beat.

The audience certainly applauded enthusiastically and Maazel took several well-deserved bows.  At the last one he grabbed the Concertmaster’s hand, not to shake it, but to lead him and the orchestra offstage, which I thought was quite funny.

The snobbish in me didn’t think too many people would appreciate the performance.  The snobbish in me was proven correct:  I was disappointed at the number of empty seats.  The program was also played Friday, I wonder how that went.  I must admit Hong Kong still deserves its reputation as a cultural desert.

One minor thing about the program notes.  It bills the two pieces at 18 minutes and 70 minutes; in actuality they lasted just under 25 and 80 minutes respectively.

One realizes that an orchestra that can do Wagner well is only a small part of being able to put on an actual Ring cycle.  If I were the cultural minister of Hong Kong, I would want to take that up as a challenge.  Since I am not (I am not even sure such a position exists), I will just look at that possibility with some degree of hope and amusement.

And Maazel?  He looked the same as I remembered him, with his economical style of conducting.  He seemed to lean on the guard rail a bit more, and walked a little slower.  But he was as animated (not quite the right term) as before.  I thought he had an appropriate energy level for someone in his 70s: he is 83.  I have always been a fan.  I wish him well.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Singapore Symphony Orchestra – Jason Lai, conductor; Steven Osborne, piano. October 25, 2013.

Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore.  Foyer Stalls (Seat EE33, S$45.)

Prelude to Parsifal by Richard Wagner (1813-1883).
Piano Concerto, Op. 13 by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61 by Robert Schumann (1810-1856).

We are on a short visit to Singapore to visit Anne’s aunt, and found out about this concert by searching on the web.  The concert is billed as “Young Britten” as the concerto was written in 1938.  I saw Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Met a few weeks ago.  That was also written when he was young, and I was surprised at how complex it was compared to the (little) Britten that I knew.  I was wondering what this Piano Concerto would sound like since it was also written when he was quite young.

Turns out this concerto was also quite accessible and quite enjoyable.  Not that I can give an analysis of it, but I certainly enjoyed the virtuosity of the music and the give and take between the soloist and the orchestra.  While the acoustics of the hall was quite good, the piano was at times overwhelmed by the orchestra, not during the quiet passages but during those that the pianist pounded on the instrument.  On the many occasions the pianist played against only a few of the orchestra players, he produced a very good sound.  A great example would be the part with the viola solo.  There was also a part where the bass drums and the cymbals were the only instruments used, the cymbals could sound a lot more confident.

The Program Notes contains a description of the four movements (Toccata, Waltz, Impromptu, and March) and helped in the appreciation of the music.  It also has some explanatory remarks that added to one’s understanding.  One example is how Britten described the ending of Waltz: “War … and end to all this pleasure – end of Concerto, friends, work, love – oh blast, blast damn.”  Another example is how the fourth movement echoed the work of Shostakovich and his political commentary.  I hope these are not obvious to a first time listener as I didn’t get any of it.

Let us get back to the start of the evening, the Prelude to Parsifal.  A few minutes in, I was already impressed.  First was the acoustics.  I have been to a few nice looking new concert halls and found the acoustics to be unsatisfactory.  Not this one, despite (or because) of the huge space above the seating areas.  The individual parts can be heard clearly, and the overall sound was great.  (I did have some trouble with the balance between the orchestra and the solo piano, as noted above.)  The seats were comfortable, with a lot of leg room in front.  The orchestra also sounded precise.  While four hours of Parsifal is a bit much, 13 minutes of it is certainly enjoyable, especially if one recognizes some of the leitmotifs.  I do want to go to concerts whenever I visit a new town, but mostly out of curiosity to see how well these orchestras and concert halls compare with one another.  I was glad this evening could be revised upward as a genuine musical happening.

After the intermission, we heard Schumann’s Second Symphony, written when he was already ill (I assume it was depression, the Program Notes doesn’t say.)  Here I thought the orchestra could use more people, even though Schumann wants to take the musical world back to Mozart.  There are enough passages that are weighty enough to justify more musicians.  The Symphony is about 38 minutes in duration and contains four movements: (i) Sostenuto assai – Un poco piu vivace – Allegro, ma non troppo; (ii) Scherzo (Allegro vivace); (iii) Adagio expressive; and (iv) Allegro molto vivace.

We had seen Jason Lai before, conducting the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, of which he is also associate conductor.  Small world.  He was again energetic and got the job done.

The concert hall and the theatre comprise the Esplanade Theatres, with a unique architecture that evokes of a durian, a puffer fish, or the Sydney Opera House.  The concert hall is quite small, seating perhaps 1500 people.  Tonight’s was the only performance of the program, which seems to be the norm for the Orchestra, and the auditorium was only about 70% full, if that.  Which is a pity.  Singapore is a city of over 5 million people, so you would think there is more support of the arts.

Comparison with the Hong Kong Philharmonic is inevitable for someone like myself.  In Hong Kong most HKPO programs are repeated, and attendance is usually quite good.  With the HKPO I already remark that the orchestra deserves a better audience; it is even more so in Singapore.  When I was growing up, Hong Kong had the reputation of being a cultural desert, that analogy when carried over the Singapore would make it the Atacama desert.  I realize I saw only one performance of the SSO, but I do feel a bit sorry for them.

Now HKPO has been inviting world class conductors as its music director (Atherton, de Waart and now van Zweeden) and I notice SSO’s directors have been Singapore natives.  Not that I want to knock local musicians, but perhaps they should expand their recruiting horizon a bit?

Anyway, this was for me an overall great experience.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Joshua Weilerstein, conductor; Arabella Steinbacher, violin. October 15, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 2 Left (Seat CC5, $40.)

Last Round (1991/96) by Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960).
Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64 (1844) by Mendelssohn (1809-47).
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 (1889) by Dvorak (1841-1904).

The youth shall take over the world.  That was the thought that came to my mind when I found out who the conductor and the soloist were going to be.  Joshua Weilerstein was born in 1987, making him 25 or 26.  I don’t know how old Arabella Steinbacher is (and can’t find out as I am again sitting inside a plane,) but remember her as being very young when she performed with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra a couple of years ago.

The program has a “war horse” violin concerto sandwiched between two pieces I had never heard before.  When we were in Italy last summer (Florence in particular,) we had a chance to hear a concert devoted to Piazzolla’s music, but decided to pass since we did not count tango nor jazz as a favorite.  Today’s program started with a short piece by one of Piazzolla’s admirers, Osvaldo Golijov.  According to the Playbill, Golijov is considered one of the great composers of our generation, being inundated by commissions from various prestigious organizations.  This work was written as a tribute to Piazzolla, “Last Round” was an imaginary chance for Piazzolla to fight once more.  The Program Notes contains the composer’s description of the two movements: Movido, urgent – Macho cool and dangerous; and Muertes dei angel (Deaths of the Angel), Lentisimo.

I have some rough idea what tango sounds like, and can’t begin to understand the appeal of jazz.  Alas, the combination of the two genres didn’t make it any more accessible for me.  Indeed it didn’t evoke any images of a tango in my mind, although there is a strong jazz flavor to the music.   Evidently the composer allows for different ways the piece can be performed, for tonight a reduced string orchestra was used.  However, there are multiple parts for the strings, and the first and second violin players were divided up and sat on both sides of the stage.  The music, however, didn’t sound as complicated as the Program Notes would indicate.  From the tepid applause at the conclusion, I suspect many in the audience didn’t get it.

We last heard the Mendelssohn violin concerto played by Itzhak Perlman, and I recall being quite disappointed by the performance.  Again working from my memory, Perlman messed up the first movement, with many misplaced notes, but the third movement was played with his characteristic light touch.  Steinbacher certainly got a better grip on the intonation, but the entire performance was quite flat.  She played the cadenza written by the composer.  That is the one familiar to me.  The annotator seems to think the one written by Ferdinand David is heard more often – right now I don’t remember what it sounds like.

The Mendelssohn concerto is a showpiece of moderate difficulty, and considered light-weight musically by many critics.  I can agree with the assessment in that the listener may admire the skill of the musician and tap along with the rhythm, but they would seldom feel emotionally drained or intellectually challenged.  While Steinbacher had no trouble with the difficult passages, she didn’t have enough flourish (other than exaggerated arm movements at the end of a phrase that reminded me of Sarah Chang) to give a virtuoso impression.  This despite the good sound of her violin, a 1716 “Booth” Stradivarius.

The audience gave her a prolonged standing ovation.  That made me wonder if my assessment was wrong.  Earlier today CS came by to give us a ride to the airport, and he relayed the comment of an orchestra member about the performance that wasn’t complimentary.  That may be one person’s view, but I felt quite a bit of relief. [Note: this review was completed over the course of several days, for this paragraph “today” was October 17.]

I don’t know how many of Dvorak’s symphonies I have heard (he wrote at least nine,) and the eighth is not one of them.  The Playbill lists a phrase (The Birdcall) that is used quite extensively, and I certainly was familiar with that.  However, there are not that many tunes I remember, a surprise for a work by this particular composer.  The symphony consists of the following movements: Allegro con brio, Adagio, Allegro grazioso and Allegro ma non troppo.

This is a good time to say something about the conductor.  He has dual master’s degrees in violin performance and conducting from The New England Conservatory, and evidently is a great violinist as he was the first American to be invited to join the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (by Dudamel, no less.)  His energy level reminds me of a former New York Philharmonic assistant conductor – Zhang Xuan.  He is perhaps 18 inches taller though.  (CS thinks he is at least 6’ 5”, I just know Zhang is short.)  The orchestra reacted to the range of dynamics he asked for, and was quite precise in the phrasing.

But was there a lot of musicianship in the performance.  I didn’t think so right after I heard it, and continue to not think so a couple of days later (as well as on October 23, sitting inside an airplane reviewing my writeup.)  Good story telling is not simply making sure we play loudly or softly as the music score requires, but in how we string the elements into a coherent piece.  In this I don’t think Weilerstein succeeded.

Yes, the youth will take over the world.  Perhaps the old(er) needn’t be that worried about these two for now: they need to development their musicianship a bit.  I am sure they will get there.  Also, to become an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, or to be a feature soloist, at this young age is nothing short of a great accomplishment.  For that the two should be congratulated.

We drove up today, and found street parking a couple of blocks from Lincoln Center.  It must have been garbage day as there were these huge mounds of filled up garbage bags on the curb.  We parked next to one of the piles and worried if it was okay to do so – it was.

Another piece of sad news: China Fun is closed.  From the outside it looks like it is closed for good, so we lost another place to grab a quick and inexpensive meal in the area.

The concert ended at around 9:30 pm (it started at 7:30) and we were home by 10:45 pm.

The New York Times Review had a lot of good things to say about Steinbacher, it was more mixed about Weilerstein.  Interestingly, this reviewer (Zachary Woolfe) made in passing a rather disparaging remark about the recent Gilbert-led performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  Not only was he not the reviewer of record (Anthony Tommasini), his view is diametrically opposite to that of the published review also ("loud and wan" versus "vibrant, lucid, and intriguing.")  For those of us who are not "in," what is going on?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Metropolitan Opera – Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. October 11, 2013.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat F125, $62.5).

Conductor – James Conlon; Oberon (King of the Fairies) – Iestyn Davies, Tytania (Queen of the Fairies) – Kathleen Kim, Puck – Riley Costello, Lysander – Joseph Kaiser, Hermia – Elizabeth DeShong, Demetrius – Michael Todd Simpson, Helena – Erin Wall, Bottom – Matthew Rose, Quince – Patrick Carfizzi, Flute – Barry Banks.

Story.  Oberon and Tytania argue about the fate of a boy under Tytania’s protection.  Oberon sends Puck to fetch a magic flower which when applied to a person’s eyelids will make her fall in love with the first creature she sees.  He plans to steal the boy while Tytania is under the spell.  Meanwhile, the lovers Lysander and Hermia have escaped from Athens so Hermia doesn’t have to by forced into marriage with Demetrius, who loves her.  Demetrius is in turn pursued by Helena.  After seeing what has happened, Oberon asks Puck to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena.  Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, and when Lysander sees Helena, he falls in love with her.  When Tytania falls asleep, Oberon puts the juice on her eyes, and when she wakes she sees Bottom, who has been transformed into an ass.  Bottom is one of six working men rehearsing a play in the forest.  Tytania thus falls in love with Bottom.  When Oberon finds out the spell was put on the wrong person, he also pours the juice on Demetrius’s eyes.  The result is both men are after Helena.  She thinks she is being mocked, and Hermia thinks she has been abandoned.  After the four quarrel, they fall asleep, and Puck fixes his errors with the antidote, and they reconcile.  Oberon also releases Tytania from her spell, and restores Bottom back to human.  The four lovers return to Athens, and after obtaining forgiveness, are married together with Theseus and Hippolyta.  The working men put on the play.  Afterwards, the three couples retire to bed.

For someone who knows the story, my summary above makes sense.  For someone unfamiliar with it: too bad.  Even though the opera’s plot is much simplified compared with the actual play, it is still quite complicated.  According to the Program Notes, the opera cuts down the number of lines (over 2000) by half, and reduces the number of acts from 5 to 3.  The six words that are added (“compelling thee to marry with Demetrius”) are sufficient to dispense of the entire first act, set in Athens, wherein Hermia’s father tries to force her into marriage.  The opera is sung in English, thus the Met titles are in Shakespearean language, something not easy to understand at the first encounter.  Fortunately the pace is reasonable, and being a comedy there really is no need to get every word down; so I followed along without too much difficulty.  I was quite sure I would find a couple of familiar quotes in the libretto, but to my surprise I didn’t recognize any.  A search of the web for quotes from this play also yielded some obscure references (e.g., “my soul is in the sky.”)

So much for the literary analysis.  I bought a ticket for this opera mainly because of the 25% discount offer I got in the mail.  Also, I have enjoyed most of my prior encounters with operas based on Shakespeare’s plays, so I regarded this as an opportunity to learn another of his works.  A couple of years ago I saw The Enchanted Island, an amalgam of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so I was curious what the latter play really was about.  Comedies (be they plays, musicals, or operas) generally don’t work for me.  I don’t find them particularly amusing (perhaps timing is a real issue).  I felt the same way about Falstaff, and – alas – have similar feelings towards this one, despite some clever, light-hearted moments in the plot.

But there are a lot of good things I can say about the opera and the performance. First, the music was quite accessible.  It isn’t as straightforward as the other Britten opera I saw (The Rape of Lucretia, also based on a Shakespeare work), and there is more “tune” to the sung parts, but not overly mysterious.  The Program Notes also described the three “tiers” of beings and their corresponding music: the world of the fairies with high voices and harps, harpsichord, celesta, and percussions as the main instruments; woodwinds and strings for the lovers; and lower brass for the working men (rustics.)  Reality is slightly more complicated than that, but the guide helped me tremendously.  The Notes also talked about parodies of Donizetti’s mad scene, and that the play within the play also made fun of various composers, including Britten himself.  That is something I wouldn’t have caught by myself.  In any case, the mad scenes (e.g., where the four lovers quarrel) were quite enjoyable, and they were not that long that I felt embarrassed (as with the case of some Donizetti scenes.)

It was difficult for me to know if there were any headliners from the Oberon, Tytiana, the four lovers, and several of the rustics.  In the cast of character above I did add the role of Peter Quince who was not headlined in the Playbill.  I thought his importance is comparable to the other two that got mentioned.  The only artist I remember from my prior opera experience is Kathleen Kim, who sang the role of Oscar in A Masked Ball.  She did very well here also.  For once I wasn’t too confused by a male role sung by a countertenor.  Davies’s timbre was sufficiently different from Kim’s that I could tell them apart even though I couldn’t see who was doing the singing (given how far I was from the stage.)

As with Hamlet, I didn’t quite get why it was necessary for a play within a play.  To me it just added some thirty minutes to the whole thing.  Speaking of which: the opera is about 3 hours in length, with two intermissions the event lasted just short of 4 hours.

The staging is modernist and for most part is a stylized depiction of the forest.  The addition of a crescent moon made the scene a realm of the forests.

Overall this was a pleasant experience.  The Program Notes writer has a lot of great things to say about the opera, and the New York Times review is glowing.  I suspect I will only get to that level of sophistication after a detailed study of the work, which I probably won’t get to do.

I took the train in, and by the time I got home, it was after 1 am.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor. October 9, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 3 (Seat FF10, $34).

Frieze (2012) by Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960).
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1822-24) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus - Kent Tritle, director.
Julianna Di Giacomo, Soprano; Kelly O’Connor, Mezzo-Soprano;
Russell Thomas, Tenor; Shenyang, Bass

Alan Gilbert started the concert by talking a bit about Turnage’s Frieze.  It was mostly a repeat of what he said in the Playbill.  The piece was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, which also commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony about two hundred years ago; the idea was to respond to the monumental work.  One could interpret this as Gilbert implying that Turnage’s work may end up as immortal.  Gilbert also drew parallels between the corresponding movements of the two symphonies, saying the newer piece gave him a new appreciation of the pauses in the third (if memory serves) Beethoven movement.

If that is the implication, I can quite confidently predict that it won’t work out that way, knowing full well I probably won’t be around in a couple of hundred years to see my prediction confirmed or disproved.  Beyond that, the piece left me with little to say.  Not that I don’t want to, there is simply not much to say about it.  Well, the piece in and of itself is probably okay, but I kept trying to find all these Beethoven references and failed to do so.  Playbill has high praises for Turnage in general, and he is the composer for the opera Anna Nicole that just finished its run at the (now bankrupt) New York City Opera.  This was my first encounter with his music, though.

The piece is of bearable length at a little over 20 minutes, and consists of four movements: (1) Hushed and expansive; (2) With veiled menace; (3) ♪ = 60; (4) ♪ = 120.  I am quite sure the composer didn’t run out of ideas for the last two movements, although – again – I cannot prove it from what I heard.  The fourth movement didn’t sound twice as fast as the third, though.

The Playbill claims that before this series of concerts, the Ninth Symphony has been played 196 times.  At say 4 concerts per series, that means about 50 programs.  As the orchestra has been around for 170 years (it was founded in 1842), that means they put it out once every 3 to 4 years.  Interestingly, the last time the symphony was performed was in December 2004, about 9 years ago; thus the interval has been much longer than average.

And it was worth the wait.  I was caught up after the first few measures.  The orchestra came to life, as did Gilbert.  Their sound and movements were crisp and precise, as a great orchestra and a great conductor should be.

I am sure many people realize this, but I have never seen it written up as such.  The Ninth can be thought of as a juxtaposition of two different compositions.  The first three movements are so “pastoral” in nature that they evoke similar images that the sixth does.  (In my case, I was trying to remember the ninth’s opening theme and kept thinking I had it mixed up with the sixth.)  If the performance ends with the third movement, it will be satisfying to most listeners, other than those who worry about issues such as key signatures and that the music would end with a slow movement.  The three movements are: Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso; Molto vivace; and Adagio molto e cantabile.  The fourth movement has as its marking Presto – Recitativo “O Freunde, nicht diese Tone” – Allegro assai.  It starts in a way similar to the first movement, but launches into a majestic oratorio that demands a different sound from the orchestra and the addition of vocal parts.

A few remarks about the vocal parts.  The soloists all did fine, although I had trouble picking out the mezzo-soprano part at times.  Shenyang started the whole exercise with a strong rendition of “O Freunde, nicht diese Tone!”  If I recall correctly, he was discovered by Renee Fleming several years ago, and as they say, the rest is history; this is the first time I heard him sing, though.  I do wonder why he uses only a given name, and that of a city at that.  Like Cher, or Enya, perhaps.  (Turns out his name is Shen Yang, Shen being the family name.) I think this was my first encounter with the Manhattan School Symphonic Chorus (a search of my blog confirms it), they put in a strong performance.

The Playbill contains quite a few contradictory comments by music critics, several of which I paraphrase below: “saying that the audience received the work enthusiastically does not mean praising the work – it is beyond praise – but the audience;” “the Andante was declared by modern aestheticism to be over-long;” “I do not accept as perfect every note, every phrase, every chord; perhaps even I do not consider it in every detail a model work of art;” “it is sacred, I have often wondered why;” and “very badly set in the last.”  So even great music has its detractors: the quotes are respectively by Robert Schumann, Claude Debussy (who didn’t think it was too long), Ralph Vaughan Williams, Igor Stravinsky, and Giuseppe Verdi, not a music slouch among them.

As for me, I am moving from the “too long, too many repeats” towards the “not one superfluous note” camp.  Not quite all the way there, although tonight’s performance pushed me along considerably.  The enthusiastic applause by the audience was well deserved, and provided a dramatic contrast to the reception of Turnage’s Frieze.

Looking back over my prior blog entries, I last saw the Ninth performed by the New Jersey Symphony and I, alas, called it amateurish.

The New York Times reviewer loved the Turnage piece, and uncharacteristically had a lot of good things to say about Gilbert in general, and his rendition of the Ninth Symphony in particular.