Sunday, March 31, 2013

Pro Arte Orchestra of Hong Kong – Ho-man Choi, conductor. March 31, 2013.

Auditorium, Shatin Town Hall, Hong Kong, Stalls (Seat R17, HK$180).

Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).
The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921).
   Pianists: Alan Chu and Kinwai Shum
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 Pathetique by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

I find myself in Hong Kong and China for a couple of weeks.  It turns out I arrived just as the annual arts festival was drawing to a close, so there were very few concerts available.  Actually, this was pretty much it.

A few words about the orchestra, as far as I can tell, its members are all aspiring musicians under the age of 25, and some of their alumni have gone on to well-known music schools throughout the world.  The conductor himself graduated with a master’s degree in conducting from Indiana.  And it is a much larger orchestra than I expected: nine first violins, six cellos, three double basses, and a full complement of woodwind and brass instruments.  Therein lies my problem: should I listen to the group as a youth orchestra, or a full-fledged one?  First the verdict: as a youth orchestra its performance was okay, as a professional ensemble it bordered on disastrous.

Very soon into the first piece it was obvious that, despite the number of players, the woodwind section was weak.  When it came to the solo by the concertmaster (a young woman), there were volume and intonation problems that may be partly attributed to nerves and the need for a better violin.  The timpani, played by a lady, didn’t exert itself as much as it should.  There was quite a bit of syncopation which was a bit off, despite the trick of tapping the on-beat with a finger on the drums.  Nonetheless, I thought the orchestra was okay after they performed this piece.

Carnival is a collection of fourteen episodes, most of which are named after animals.  It was supposed to be humorous.  With an occasional exception here or there, the playing was quite flat and not the least bit humorous.  The flutist did stand out in The Aviary, belting out music that was quite virtuoso.  For the Cygnet, the cello was also a bit weak, despite the cellist being at the front of the stage.  Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable rendition of a lovely tune.  He wasn’t the principal cellist, surprisingly.

For the record, the fourteen movements are: Introduction and Lion’s Royal March, Hens and Cocks, Wild Asses: Swift Animals, Tortoises, The Elephant, Kangaroos, Aquarium, Personages with Long Ears, The cuckoo in the Deep Woods, Aviary, Pianists, Fossils, The Swan, and The Finale.

When I first looked at the Program, I thought the orchestra showed courage in trying the Pathetique Symphony.  After listening to the performance, I decided it was recklessness and bravado.  Let me count the ways.

Very early in the piece the various sections showed how tentative they were, and how many botched notes they played.  This improved but wasn’t eliminated as the performance proceeded.  In my notes the first word I wrote down was “oops.”

There was not much phrasing at all.  One phrase would end, and a split second later another would begin, giving the music a very disjoint feeling and leaving the audience the impression that the orchestra was simply stringing along different melodies without consideration of the overall architecture.

The conductor oftentimes just served as a timekeeper during the more complex passages.  The result was a flat rendition of the score with none of the mood and subtlety that are so rich in the music.

The timpanist was a man (the percussionists evidently alternate their roles) and he was having a good time with the drums.  However, his enthusiasm and the resultant sound were incongruent with the rest of the orchestra.  While the drum does play an important part in the piece, it isn’t the be-all and end-all.

The term “Pathetique” probably won’t be in anyone’s mind while listening to this performance.   The positive third movement was barely so, and the last movement didn’t bring much despair to it.  A few people did applaud after the third movement, which the Program “warned” against.  I say one might as well make it a tradition – like standing for the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  However, in tonight’s case it may be undeserved.

At the end, regardless of the level of the orchestra, an attempt that ultimately proved to be too ambitious is not a prudent thing.  The teacher and the students may give an A for effort, but an audience does not.  Instead of showcasing the strength of the orchestra, the program ended up highlighting its inadequacies.

For encore the orchestra played an arrangement of the familiar hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

I do find some information in the Program interesting.  The Offenbach overture wasn’t written by Offenbach, but was arranged by a Carl Binder.  The oft-thought of “can-can” dance at the end is actually an infernal gallop.  The other interesting fact was, except for the Cygnet, Saint-Saens wouldn’t let the Carnival be published lest people concluded he wasn’t a serious composer.

A few words on the auditorium.  This was the first time ever for me, and I was surprised at how nice it looks and how large it is (seats 1500 or so.)  The acoustics seems unsatisfactory, though.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s La Traviata. March 14, 2013.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Family Circle (Seat A101, $47.50).

Conductor – Yannick Nezet-Seguin; Violetta Valery – Diana Damrau, Alfredo Germont – Saimir Pirgu, Giorgio Germont – Placido Domingo.

Story.  See previous post.

Watching this opera wasn’t in our original plan.  When we turned in a couple of tickets we couldn’t use for another performance, we had some money “left over” and got these tickets.  Having Diana Damrau as the headliner helped, and at that time we didn’t know about Placido Domingo.  In one sentence: I am glad we went.

It didn’t start that auspiciously.  When we got into the auditorium about 10 minutes before curtain, the curtain was already raised, with a balding gentleman in a black coat sitting on a semicircle bench that spanned the set.  And the set was basically a white curved room in front of a black backdrop.  Other than the bench, the only other prop was a huge clock on the right side of the stage (from an audience’s perspective.)  A reading of the Playbill told us “time” was going to be a major theme in the opera, in that the protagonists only had little of it left and there was no holding back of it.  So we concluded then the gentleman represented Father Time.

I usually don’t care for too much existential analysis of an opera.  Anyone can read into a story and resonate with it morally one way or another, but to pass that understanding off as the new truth about an opera is both unnecessary and presumptuous.  Turns out the story is based on the actual story of Dumas (the son) – news to me and probably many other people.  To me it has always been about how fleeting happiness is: a short-lived love story interrupted and terminated by other people and disease.  (I am writing this blog mostly for myself, so have no qualms about trying to draw a conclusion from it.)

Back to the production.  It was basically the same set up for the entire opera.  The single red sofa in Act I was replaced with several white sofas with floral covering.  The clock was moved from the side to center stage and eventually moved off the stage.  The traditional scenes where gypsies dance and matadors sing were “impressionalized,” for lack of a better word.  Everyone except Violetta was dressed in black suit, coat and tie, including the women.  Scenery changes therefore were mostly in the audience’s minds instead of being actual.  For instance, in Act III the stage became a street when the revelers marched in, and it was “transformed” into a bedroom when they were pushed back by Father Time.  Anne thought it worked pretty well in this new interpretation.  I said the opera worked despite all this nonsense.

Which brings me to my main point: an opera rises and falls on the quality of the music, and in this case the music was simply fabulous.  And to be blunt, Damrau was the show, and she did so splendidly.  Given her background as a coloratura soprano, there was no doubt that she could sing the part.  What was amazing was the range of emotions she managed to convey with her voice, how it was strong, regretful, pensive, and furious when it needed to be.  And her voice either blasted with force into the auditorium, or floated wistfully to the ends of the hall.  I am sure many have seen the opera before, but there was no doubt that not too far into the program the audience was already moved by the inevitability of the conclusion.  When she first appeared on stage (which was at the beginning), she was not quite credulous as a woman who would eventually die of tuberculosis.  By the end, though, the thought didn’t even cross my mind.  This speaks to how captivating the performance was.

Pirgu, whom I heard for the first time, did an admirable job as Alfredo.  But he had two strikes against him: Damrau just did a superb job, and people may wonder how Domingo would have fared if he had sung the part.

Having Domingo in the production was an unexpected bonus for us.  We last saw him as Neptune in The Enchanted Island, there his role was more simply standing there than singing.  The role of Giorgio Germont is much more substantial, and perhaps a challenge for a tenor.  Domingo reached the low notes without any trouble, but seemed to have a bit of a problem with his breathing initially.  Could it be a sense of nerves, after all, the prolonged applause when he first appeared on stage might have told him the great expectation the audience had.  To Domingo’s credit, I thought he realized the supporting role of Giorgio, and acted accordingly even when he was singing as part of an ensemble; he could have hoarded the scene but chose not to.

The orchestra’s role in many of Verdi’s operas is as accompaniment.  There are isolated passages here and there, of course.  Unfortunately for them, even the overture was a bit overshadowed by Father Time and Damrau stumbling across the stage.  To the extent the orchestra was noticed, it did great.

And Father Time?  He was that, I’m sure.  But he was also the doctor, and – in my view – the grim reaper.  But the interpretation is up to the individual, isn’t it?

We had a late lunch with the McNallys and the Hwangs in Marlboro, so I just had cake and Anne had soup at Europan.  To top off a great evening, we found free off-street parking.

I couldn’t find a review in the New York Times, but here is one from The Star Tribune.  The headline “Diana Damrau sensational” says it all.

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, director. March 13, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat T103, $72).

Program – The Bach Variations: A Philharmonic Festival
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 by J. S. Bach (1685-1750).

Dorothea Roschmann, soprano; Anne Sofie von Otter, Mezzo-Soprano; Steve Davislim, Tenor; Eric Owens, Bass-Baritone.

Except for lovers of Bach’s music, I suspect most people who have heard about this work have never heard it, certainly not in its entirety.  That is the case with Anne and me.  We actually had a chance to listen to it at last year’s Bach Festival in Bethlehem, PA, but decided to skip it, having had more than our fill of Bach after a day and a half.  When this opportunity came along, we decided to give it a try.

While overall I enjoyed the two hour experience, I feel comfortable only making a few general observations.

First, a few comments about the work itself (mostly taken from the Program Notes.)  This was as much compiled as it was composed by Bach during the last decade of his life.  Many of the material was used before.  However, the complete performance of this Mass didn’t take place until 109 years after his death, in 1859.  The U.S. premiere was performed by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem in 1900, and this work is performed every year during the aforementioned Bach Festival.  The structure is a standard I. Kyrie and Gloria, II. Symbolum Nicenum (Credo), III. Sanctus; and IV. Osanna, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei.

Given the performance norms of Bach’s day, today’s orchestra and choir were probably much larger than what Bach intended.  They were nonetheless reduced size ensembles, and often only parts of the sections would play.  The choir members numbered about 70, and sounded surprisingly weak compared to what I came to expect of them; this was especially true for the tenors – Anne thought she counted only seven of them.

There were only a few arias for the soloists (sometimes they sang duets).  They all did very well.  It is interesting three of the four are from overseas (German, Swedish, and Australian.)  Eric Owens is the American, and we heard him before as Alberich in a couple of the Ring operas.  His voice was the weakest of the bunch.  Every time there was a solo or a duet, there would be one or two solo instruments that accompany the singing (violin, oboe d’Amore, flute, cello); the effect was very pleasant.

I walked away just appreciating how polished the performance was.  Since all lyrics got repeated a lot, I should be forgiven to think I know quite a bit of Latin by the time the performance ended.

In the Playbill’s Lead Story Alan Gilbert says “I am not a Bach specialist, but I will approach the music with sincerity as a musician.”  I am not a Bach aficionado, but I decided to try to enjoy it as a listener.  And I found it enjoyable.

I am now somewhat inclined to head out to Bethlehem in May to listen to how the “originals” did it.

The roster for the orchestra’s bass section looked different from how I remembered it.  Later it was confirmed to me that there had been some personnel changes.  Also, we tried to get dinner at China Fun but it was closed (supposedly only for the day).  We are running out of places to eat here.  We found out to our mild surprise that the Amber across the street is a Japanese/Asian restaurant, and we had a quick bite there.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

New Jersey Symphony – Marcelo Lehninger, conductor; Joanna Mongiardo, soprano. March 9, 2013.

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, Orchestra (Seat O118, $41).

Italian Girl in Algiers Overture by Rossini (1792-1868).
Rigoletto “Caro nome” by Verdi (1813-1901).
La traviata “E strano – Ah, for’e lui” by Verdi.
Chrysanthemums by Puccini (1858-1924).
La Sonnambula “Ah! Non credea mirarti” by Bellini (1801-1835).
Linda di Chamounix “O luce di quest’anima” by Donizetti (1797-1848).
Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, “Italian” by Mendelssohn (1809-1847).

The last time I went to an NJSO concert, I complained about how expensive a ticket was.  This time they were offering 50% off tickets, so we decided to bite.  We live only about 30 minutes from Red Bank, so we left our house at 6:15 pm, thinking that would give us plenty of time.  Turns out it was very difficult to find nearby parking.  When we tried to order sushi at the restaurant and expressed our desire for a quick meal, we were advised to order meals from the kitchen instead of the bar.  It was good advice, we had ten minutes to spare.

I remember Count Basie Theatre as a run-down place greatly in need of an overhaul.  The revival of Red Bank the last twenty or so years also extended to the theatre.  It is now a very nice looking venue, ornately decorated inside.  The smallish venue made everything sounded great, and we had rather good seats in the orchestra section.

The first half of the program consisted of pieces from well-known Italian opera writers.  I hadn’t heard the Puccini and the Donizetti pieces before, but the other pieces were pretty standard.

The soprano Mongiardo did a superb job.  Her voice had a very pleasant quality, and carried very well.  There were some very high notes (e.g., in La traviata) that she reached without difficulty.  A couple of minor misgivings: there were not that many soft passages, and she had a bit of trouble with the trills.  Also, the voice comes in before the orchestra in “E Strano,” and I am not sure she hit the notes correctly.  Nowadays I don’t trust my ears as much as I did, though.

The Symphony by Mendelssohn was familiar, especially the slow movement whose tune is used in a well-known hymn.  The four movements are Allegro vivace, Andante con moto, Con moto moderato, and Saltarello: Presto.  The orchestra did surprising well.  I was quite ready for it to mess up the fourth movement, and was glad that they proved me wrong.

The young Brazilian conductor explained to the audience a little about the background to the Italian Symphony.  I am not sure he added that much to the Program Notes, though.

This was generally a program of popular music, and I enjoyed it.  At half price, the concert was certainly worth it.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Metropolitan Opera – Wagner’s Parsifal. March 5, 2013.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony, Seat F12 ($92.50).

Conductor – Asher Fisch; Gurnemanz – Rene Pape, Kundry – Michaela Martens, Amfortas – Peter Mattei, Parsifal – Jonas Kaufmann, Klingsor – Evgeny Nikitin.

Story.  The Holy Grail and the Spear are relics from the crucifixion of Jesus.  Knights are guarding the Holy Grail, and their king Amfortas has been wounded by the Spear since he was distracted by a flower maiden when he was struggling with Klingsor.  Klingsor is the sorcerer who became one after failing to join the knights, even after he castrated himself.  Into this situation comes Parsifal (the name means “pure fool”), who has been shielded from everything by his mother since his father died in battle.  Since Parsifal is the one prophesized to restore order, Klingsor tries to seduce him with the flower maidens and Kundry.  After those attempts fail, Kingsor throws the Spear at Parsifal.  When Parsifal catches the Spear, the evil empire disintegrates.  Parsifal goes to the knights, the Spear is used to heal Amfortas, and the community is enlightened and rejuvenated.

In preparation for this performance, I read the synopsis at the Metropolitan Opera website and the chapter on this opera in the book “The Wagner Operas” by Ernest Newman.  The origins of the myth date back to early twelfth century, and do not refer to the grail or the spear as relics from Jesus’ crucifixion.  Naturally the story has gone through different retelling and variations over the centuries.  Wagner took the story and put his own spin on it, transforming the story into one that is much more religious than the “original.”

This retelling has turned a possibly very compelling story into a mostly narrative opera.  I say possibly because I have read only a few excerpts (translated into English) in Newman’s book.  This results in a near-monologue for the most part of Act I by Gurnemanz and other similar situations in the rest of the opera.  The result is a story that is neither compelling nor dramatic.

The way Wagner composed the music was similar to his other operas: stringing together a lot of leitmotifs.  The Newman chapter contains quite a few of them, not too many of them sight-readable – and I didn’t play them on a piano.  In any case, to my ears many of the leitmotifs sound similar to those in the Ring operas, and every now and then I thought I was watching a Ring episode.  However, as opposed to the Ring opera, there wasn’t a lot of drama on the stage.  The only scene that came close was the spear-throwing at the end of Act II.  When Parsifal caught the one being thrown by Parsifal, everything was frozen in place, with all the spears forming a triangular pattern.

The costumes are non-period, or “timeless” as the Program would want us believe.  The knights all wore suits at the beginning, and they took off their ties and jackets during the prelude, so they ended up wearing white shirts on pants during the opera.  They didn’t wear any shoes: strange for “formally” dressed men.  To my mind it doesn’t work.  The settings for Acts I and III are minimalistic: basically a slanted floor with screen projections at the back.  The scenery for Act II is more interesting.  There is this red liquid on the ground that create a strange effect as people walk on it.  It stains the white dresses of the maidens: there must be a hefty cleaning bill after each show.

As I said earlier, there was a lot of narrative singing by Pape as Guernemanz.  He did most of the singing during Act I, which was quite long at close to two hours.  He was also quite involved with the story in Act III.  The headliners are Jonas Kaufmann playing Parsifal and (originally) Katarina Dalayman playing Kundry.  Dalayman was sick and the role was filled by Michaela Martens.  For a Wagner heroine, this is a relatively easy role and Martens acquitted herself quite well in the singing.  The acting was a bit wooden, though.  And it involved her lying or kneeling on the ground a lot.  The part where she stood out was the seduction scene in Act II; alas, it was also amply clear that she doesn’t have the body of a dancer.  Kaufmann is the one you see on the posters.  This is the third opera I have seen him in, and I still do not understand what the big fuss is about him.  His voice was great at times, but not uniformly so.  In that regard Pape did a much better job.

I am also quite sure the conductor is a replacement, although I don’t remember who was originally slated to lead the performance.   The orchestra produced the sound characteristic of a Wagner opera, but I am not sure it was the best the orchestra could have done.

Some remark about the length of the opera also is in order.  The whole performance, with two rather long intermissions, lasted 5 ½ hours.  Newman mentions somewhere the opera is about three hours, so this production is about an hour too long.  Indeed the whole thing seemed slow, both in terms of how the story evolved and how fast the music was played.  Perhaps the tempo could have been faster, or better still (though not possible) the story could unfold a bit faster.  Wagner first read the myth written by Wolfram in 1845, and completed the opera thirty-seven years later (1882).  One would think the story could have been more compelling if indeed the idea gestated within him for so long.

I don’t get Wagner’s operas on the first hearing.  I doubt many do.  Most of the time I believe I would appreciate the composition more if I listen to it again – and it is indeed true of the Ring operas and The Flying Dutchman.  I am doubtful that is the case here.  I may appreciate the music more; but it is unlikely that would be the case with the dramatic aspects of the opera.

The New York Times review is mixed, at best.  I don’t share the reviewer’s effusive description of Kaufmann’s performance, though.