Saturday, April 27, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano. April 25, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat V104, $72).

Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503 (1786) by  Mozart (1756-91).
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1873, rev. 1874, 1876-77, 1878 and 1888/89; ed. L. Nowak, 1959) by Bruckner (1824-96).

Anne couldn’t make this concert because she is staying behind in the Boston area.  I decided to return one of the tickets and went by myself.  After an early dinner at home, I caught the 5:25 pm train to New York City.

The one surprising thing about this concert was how sparsely attended it was, even with a name like Ax.  There were quite a few empty seats in front of me and both seats next to me were empty.

In the “Alan Gilbert on This Program” section of the Playbill, Gilbert talks about Mozart concertos being frequently paired with Bruckner symphonies.  That was certainly news to me.  And as I prepare to type these notes, I looked through my prior entries with Bruckner, and none of them was paired with a Mozart concerto.  Since none of those concerts had Gilbert as the conductor, perhaps Gilbert is one of the few conductors that do that?  Besides, while both pieces were excellently played – more on that later – I couldn’t hear any Austrian connection between the two very disparate pieces of composition.

I have remarked on several occasions that I cannot tell a good performance of a Mozart composition from a great one.  But I have to make an exception: Ax truly put in a great performance.  While the word “brilliance” isn’t usually associated with a Mozart piano concerto, many other words do, and for me tonight’s performance is even emotionally appealing.  The music is great, but for me the deeper appreciation is how great the performers were able to make it sound.  With the exception of the second movement (Andante) which I found a bit monotonous, the lines in the other movements (Allegro maestoso and Allegretto) were just beautiful.  The artists played with their heart, and the audience listened with their hearts.  As Gilbert describes it, Ax’s musicianship is natural, and his music unfolds in an inevitable way.

The Program Notes for both the Mozart piece and the Bruckner piece talked a lot about things around the music, but not about the music itself.  The write-up on the Mozart piece looks very similar to (what I remember of) the write-up for the last Mozart concerto I heard.  They were written within the same general period, anyway – the other one being No. 23.  It did talk about a passage that sounded very much like the theme song of the French Revolution, which is interesting, but didn’t really add to one’s appreciation of the work.

Bruckner’s third symphony went through revisions similar to the other symphonies I had heard or read about.  His symphonies never seemed to enjoy instant success, and – the supposedly insecure composer that he was – he would try to revise them.  Well, it looks like I am not the only person who doesn’t get Bruckner’s work upon its first hearing.  In any case, this work went through three major revisions, some not even approved by him.  In its originally composed form it evoked so much Wagner that the latter agreed to have it dedicated to him.  Supposedly Bruckner was most pleased with what we heard tonight, but by this revision most of the Wagner quotations were gone – except for the end of the second movement which had a fleeting reference to Die Walkure.

At least that is what I gleamed from the Program Notes, which I suspect left things a bit ambiguous on purpose, for various reasons.  That is not what I heard, though.  The piece started very quietly, and to my ears it sounded somewhat like Das Rheingold and The Flying Dutchman.

I took advantage of the “elbow room” I had and took some notes on the piece.  After the Wagnerian start, the volume quickly built up.  As I observed before, Bruckner had a more classical (meaning traditional) approach to the symphony, and the way he developed a theme was relatively easy to catch.  The first movement (Mehr langsam, Misterioso) was quite long at 21 minutes.  During the second movement (Etwas bewegt, quasi Andante; 16 minutes) we heard a rare and beautiful melody from the viola section.  Somewhere along the line it got very complex: I noticed that each of the string section was further split into two parts.  I listened attentively till the end of the movement and embarrassingly couldn’t hear anything from Die Walkure.  (I will be going to the opera in a couple of weeks; maybe something would jog my memory.)  The third movement (Zielich schnell – Trio) was relatively light-hearted and lasted a relatively short 8 or so minutes.  The beginning of the fourth movement (Allegro; 15 minutes) reminded me of another composer and his works: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Romeo and Juliet.  After a few minutes I noticed during the supposedly unison passages some instruments would come in a fraction of a beat late.  It happened enough times that I wonder if it was on purpose; unfortunately it is probably very difficult to get a copy of the score.  There was a slow cello passage that was also very pleasant, and that was again followed by a Prokofiev-like passage. (I am writing this fully aware that Prokofiev was born in 1891, after the last revision to this symphony.  Perhaps I should have said “anticipated Prokofiev.”)  The piece ended in a typical Bruckner manner, loud, with the strings playing tremolos and the woodwinds and brasses belting out the melody.

The orchestration for the symphony is again quite traditional, but everyone showed up.  I counted 16 second violins, and the roster has only 13 names.  Again the brasses were sometimes on the loud side, although not nearly as egregious as the last Bruckner.

The symphony was close to one hour in length.  To my surprise, I didn’t find it long at all.  Actually somewhere along the line I was telling myself that I was enjoying it.

I am glad I went.  The New York Times review was at best lukewarm on the Bruckner piece, interestingly placing the blame on the ambiguity of the piece due to its many revisions rather than the conductor.  The reviewer also heard references to many Wagner works which I thought got revised out of the score – I will go with my lack of perception on this one.  He even blamed the Avery Fisher acoustics for the disjointed performance he heard.

Monday, April 22, 2013

New York City Opera - Rossini's Moses in Egypt. April 20, 2013.

New York City Center, Balcony (Seat D135, $62).

Conductor - Jayce Ogren; Osiride - Randall Bills, Faraone (Pharaoh) - Wayne Tigges, Amaltea (Queen) - Keri Alkema, Mose (Moses) - David Salsbery Fry (substituting for David Cushing), Aronne (Aaron) - Aldo Caputo, Mambre - Zachary Finkelstein, Elcia - Sian Davies, Amenofi - Emily Righter.

Story.  The opera is based on the events as described in Exodus.  It starts with the plague of darkness, and ends with the Egyptian army being drowned at the Red Sea.  Within this plot is the love story between Osiride, the son of the Pharaoh, and Elcia, a Hebrew woman.  Osiride is struck down by lightning as the result of the last plague.

It has been a long time since we last saw a New York City Opera performance (April, 2008, according to my blog entries.)  I have kind of written the company off ever since they moved from the Lincoln Center and seemed to put out modern operas that I don’t have much interest in seeing.  Persistence on their part in keeping me on their email list pays off – in a small way.  I thought a Rossini opera on a familiar story would be interesting.

The City Center Theatre is on 55th St.  The first impression when we got into the theatre was that it has been squashed.  Our relatively cheap seats are quite high but still rather close to the stage.  There is a lot of leg room.  Unfortunately we could not see the orchestra at all.  The Koch theatre in Lincoln Center is supposedly “audio-enhanced,” I don’t know if that is the case with this theatre.

First a word on staging.  In a word: none.  Or nearly none.  There were a couple of pedestals where the Queen and Moses stood on, and that was about it.  The sceneries were provided by projections on TV screens that fill the backdrop.  Sometimes real sceneries would be projected, sometimes silhouettes, and sometimes abstract shapes (mostly squares and rectangles).  The promotional video clips I saw would lead one to think they seamlessly integrate into the stage, in actuality most of the time they simply looked like TV projections.  Often, people movements were effected by panning across the sceneries and by having the singers on moving platforms.  However, the technique became a bit trite way before the opera was finished.  That this is an opera lasting about 2 ½ hours (plus an intermission) doesn’t help.  Since NYC Opera probably has a tight budget, perhaps this is acceptable.  Of course I don’t know if this is less expensive than traditional sets.

The costumes are on the traditional side, which I appreciate.  The Egyptians wear clothing that is more “rigid” while the Hebrews wear free-flowing robes.  Further, the Egyptians move in a more mechanical manner, evoking images seen in hieroglyphics.  Interesting, yes.  Necessary?  Not so sure.

The orchestra is on the small side (roster has 8 first violins and 6 second violins) but was more than adequate for the small hall.  It actually put in a very pleasant performance.

All the singers did very well.  David Cushing withdrew as Moses because he was sick.  His substitute Aldo Fry was a bit on the rigid side.  Perhaps that’s how Moses should be sung, or perhaps he was nervous.  Assuming he was called on at the last minute, he also did a credible job.

While the love story provides some poignant moments for the opera, I keep questioning how it is plausible.  Osiride wears his disdain of the Hebrews on his sleeve, so how can he fall in love with Elcia?  Similarly, how can Elcia love someone who harbors such deep hatred for her race?  As stand-alone arias and duets, many of the songs sung by Osiride and Elcia provided moving moments in the opera.

Overall, I am glad I rediscovered the NYC Opera.  We shall see if I will become a fan.

There are more reviews on this than I expected.  This one in New York Post is quite interesting.

Metropolitan Opera - Handel's Giulio Cesare. April 19, 2013.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat B18, $95).

Conductor - Harry Bicket; Giulio Cesare - David Daniels, Curio (tribune) - John Moore, Cornelia (widow of Pompey) - Patricia Bardon, Sesto Pompeo (son of Pompey and Cornelia) - Alice Coote, Cleopatra (Queen of Egypt) - Natalie Dessay, Tolomeo (King of Egypt, Cleopatra's brother) - Christophe Dumaux, Achilla (general, advisor to Ptolemy) - Guido Loconsolo, Nireno (confidant of Cleopatra and Ptolemy) - Rachid Ben Abdeslam.

Story.  Before Caesar has a chance to reconcile with Pompey, Ptolemy kills Pompey and offers his head to Caesar as a goodwill gesture.  This causes great grief for Pompey’s widow Cornelia and their son Sextus.  Achillas and later Ptolemy want Cornelia as his wife.  Cleopatra, who is in contention with Ptolemy to rule Egypt, disguises herself as Lydia and visits Caesar to try to form an alliance.  At the end, Caesar and Cleopatra fall in love with each other, and Sextus avenges his father’s murder by killing Ptolemy.

In this witty and imaginative production of Handel’s most popular opera, David Vicar gives us an audacious blend of serious, comic, romantic and adventurous elements.  The production is full of treats and surprises; it proves beyond a doubt that Handel’s operas can be excitingly staged.

Under the skillful guidance of conductor Harry Bicket, the Met orchestra produces a lithe, lyrical and stylish performance of this great musical score.  The top flight cast that includes David Daniels and Natalie Dessay captivates the audience.  Daniels demonstrates that he is the master of the repertoire, singing remarkably with his full-bodied sound, emphatic delivery, and technical command.  Dessay was astonishing and brilliant as Cleopatra.  As one of the best-acting sopranos, she ranges seamlessly from seductress to desperate defeat to jubilant triumph.  And can she dance!  She sang with sparkle in the perky arias, and with melting richness in the sad ones.  As Sesto, Alice Coote was fiery and rich-voiced.  Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo sang his tricky arias with fresh, even tone and immaculate technique.

Hail, Ceseare!  This Met production is a conquering hero!

As a result of a comment by one of the few readers of my blog, the above is my review of the performance we saw.  If it reads a bit familiar, it is for a good reason.  I lifted it from a recent email I got from the Met about the HD movie to be screened later this month.  The quotes in that message are in turn from various reviews from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other publications.

In the concert halls of Lake Wobegon where 90% of the performances are above average,  we can stop here.  Every performance scores a grade between an A and an A+, and we should all be amazed at how flawless these professional musicians performed, how their skills tower above us, and how we would never be able to reach their level of achievement.

All true, but that is only part of the story.  I want also to record how the performance appeals to me directly, and how it fares compared to me compared to other performances I have seen.  I grade on a curve of A to C, and give out an occasional D or even an F.  I am not a professional athlete, but I can appreciate how one could get disqualified …

Which is not to say the fake review above has no ring of truth to it.  Of the few Handel operas I have seen, this is the first one  I appreciated and would recommend to others.  During the years I was going to New York City Opera performances regularly at Lincoln Center, the company would put out one or two Handel Operas a season, and I don’t recall enjoying any of them that much.

I have stated many times before that I get confused when countertenors sing in their high voices and women sing the roles of young men.  Both situations obtain here.  The good thing about an opera this long (more than 4 1/2 hours) is that by the time it was over I finally figured out who was who (to my credit, it happened a little before that.)

While the tunes are reasonably melodious, they oftentimes require great technique from the singers, and most did brilliantly.  One exception was Daniels – the “master of the repertoire” – who actually sounded uneven at times.  I don’t know how difficult is Caesar’s role compared to the others, but it didn’t call for the most singing.

All the other singers did very well, I especially enjoyed the performances of Alice Coote as Sesto and Patricia Bardon as Cornelia.

Dessay certainly sang brilliantly.  She could also hold her own among the many good actors in the cast.  She credibly delivered the funny moments (such as dancing like an Egyptian) and handled the difficult passages with ease.  Some scenes had her wearing rather scanty costumes and she managed to pull them off, even at age 48 (today was her birthday.)  The scene she was taking a bath was cleverly choreographed.

There was this piece where the Concertmaster (David Chan) dressed up as an aide had a duet with Caesar that was light-hearted and entertaining.  The Playbill also points out the ABA form of a da capa aria.  This may have been standard in Handel’s time, but appears a bit rigid for today’s listener.

It is my belief this Met production contains many elements designed to appeal to today’s listener, and in this I have the most issues.

First, the period setting.  If you look at how the people are dressed, the best guess would be during British colonial days.  Since the Egyptian setting also resembled a Moorish setting, one would therefore think Middle East.  Lawrence of Arabia, maybe?  Caesar and Cleopatra are historical characters, the story was based on historical accounts, and there would be no shame in having the singers appear as Romans and Egyptians.  It got ridiculous when the tall ships that appeared at the beginning were replaced with modern day battleships.  Funny, maybe, but why?  And was it really necessary to kill Ptolemy with a pistol?

I am sure Handel intended some light moments in the opera, but I felt the production team overdid that, turning some soul-searching arias into farces, distracting from the dramatic effect they could have produced.

Indeed musical and dramatic tastes evolve, and I certainly don’t expect the orchestra to use period instruments.  Different people would draw the “going too far” line differently, for me this production crossed it by quite a bit.  It was enjoyable, but it also leaves me wondering if I would enjoy a performance that is more like how Handel would have led.

Here is the New York Times review.  It is indeed very positive.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

New York Philharmonic – David Robertson, Conductor; Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Piano. April 13, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat Y103, $67).

Les Offrandes oubliees: Meditation symphonique pour orchestra (The Forgotten Offerings: Symphonic Meditation for Orchestra; 1930) by Messiaen (1908-92).
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488 (ca. 1784-86) by Mozart (1756-91).
Le Desenchantement du monde (The Disenchantment of the World), Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2012) by Tristan Murail (b. 1947).
Symphony No. 2 in D maor, Op. 36 (1801-02) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

We bought these tickets about a week ago with the $59 per ticket eClub promotion.  After all the fees were tagged on, the price per ticket ended up being $67.  A “regular” ticket in this section would cost around $100, plus fees.

We had a simple lunch at Ellie’s and Kuau’s new condo in Jersey City with a great view of the Manhattan skyline.  Afterwards we decided to spend the afternoon there.  Traffic into Manhattan was a breeze, except for a minor tie-up around 40th Street.  We had dinner at China Fun.

This was a relatively long concert, the durations of the four pieces add up to about 100 minutes, and the concert wasn’t done until about 10:20 pm.

The programming was quite interesting, a (relatively) modern piece followeded with a classical/romantic warhorse for each of the halves.  Further, Murail was Messiaen’s student, and Beethoven followed Mozart by a couple of decades in Vienna.  One may argue this speaks to Richardson’s alleged genius as a program designer, juxtaposing pieces in the order he did.  On the other hand, I am not sure if the relationships came out as intended (if indeed that was the intention.)  A regular concertgoer like myself can definitely tell the pieces are quite different, but won’t be able to get how Murail is related to Messiaen contrasts with how Beethoven is related to Mozart.  (I had a lot of trouble trying to put the thought into words.)  My thoughts on the concert are thus limited mostly to comments on the individual pieces.

The Messiaen piece is the shortest at about 10 minutes, divided into three sections: (i) Very slow, dolorous, profoundly sad; (ii) Rapid, ferocious, desperate, breathless; and (iii) Extremely slow, with great pity and great love.  (I won’t bother with the French.)  The composer also wrote a prayer to go with each of the sections: Christ’s sacrifice, human sin (mortal disregard for divine redemption,) and eucharist (re-establishing the balance by divine forgiveness.)  As I type this about a week after the concert, I have forgotten most of the piece – and am quite sure I won’t recognize it if I hear it again.  I do remember a few thoughts I had. the first two parts were relatively short, there was quite a bit of contrast between the movements, and most surprisingly, it sounded quite simple.

The Mozart piece was quintessential Mozart, written during a time when his popularity in Vienna, while high, was on the decline.  It is a familiar piece, with the cadenza written by Mozart, and played very well tonight.  I often say I have trouble telling a good Mozart performance from a great one, and it is the case again tonight.  Our seats were a few row behind our usual seating, and the acoustics was noticeably weaker.  Still, the balance between the soloist and the orchestra was good.  I don’t think I had seen Airmard perform before tonight, the one time we had tickets he withdrew due to sickness.  (I have no way of finding out for sure since I am inside a plane.) The movemnts are Allegro, Adagio and Allegro assai

I am quite sure I have heard Murail before, and was somewhat familiar with the Program Notes description of him as mostly a composer of spectral music, although tonight’s piece was not quite written with that technique.  On the other hand, some instruments were to be tuned about a quarter-note lower than the others.  I certainly can’t sing a quarter-note interval, and the physics of acoustics tells me when two closely tuned notes are played together one hears a pitch that is the average of the two with a beat frequency equal to the difference in frequencies.  Perhaps the tuning gives the music a special timbre, but I can’t tell without an “AB” comparison, and I suspect most people cannot.  In any case, music should speak to one’s heart, not one’s mind.  A piece like this one will remain a curiosity unless it also appeals to one’s heart.  I must say, however, that there is that potential.  Although on the whole I would equate my experience with that of Messiaen’s piece: I won’t recognize it if I hear it again.  This piece was jointly commissioned by the New York Philharmonic the Bavarian Radio, the Royal Concertgebaouw, and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestras; so it will at least be performed four times.  It is called a Symphonic Concerto as the piano collaborates with the orchestra rather than be in dialogue with it (my paraphrase.)

Despite being the least played of Beethoven’s symphonies (a statement made in the Notes that I somewhat dispute), the second is familiar to most concert goers.  I am sure I read not too long ago in New York Philharmonic’s Notes that there is a dichotomy between Beethoven’s odd and even-numbered symphonies, thus I was somewhat taken aback by the statement “It is no longer fashionable” to do so.  Having said that, however, I must agree this Symphony is more on the radical and extroverted side, despite its being his second.  The most important issue, of course, was if the performance was enjoyable.  It was.  The movements were Adagio molto – Allegro con brio, Larghetto, Scherzo (Allegro), and Allegro molto.

For some reason many in tonight’s audience found it necessary to applaud after each movement.  It was funny at first, but became annoying after it kept happening.  At some point Robertson turned around and mutter, “yes, I like the music too,”  Speaking of which, Robertson was quite energetic tonight.  My mental recollection that he was usually quite wooden was dispelled by a re-reading of my earlier blogs.  His gestures were certainly many tonight, some I consider unnecessary for an orchestra as professional as tonight’s.  Robertson leads the St. Louis Symphony, and will be starting a stint with the Sydney Symphony in January 2014 (I wonder it is an additional appointment.)  Many had hoped he would be Maazel’s replacement; perhaps he had given up since Gilbert was re-appointed, and thus decided to conduct with abandon?  I looked at next year’s programs and didn’t see him as a guest conductor.