Friday, June 28, 2013

Dorian Wind Quintet. June 27, 2013.

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, NJ.  Balcony Center, Second Row (Free).

Gretchen Pusch, flute; Gerard Reuter, oboe; Benjamin Fingland, clarinet; John Hunt, bassoon; Karl Kramer-Johansen, horn.

Quintet for Woodwinds (1948) by Elliott Carter (1908-2012).
Quintet in E flat major for Winds, Op. 88, No. 2 by Antonin Reicha (1770-1836).
Prelude and Fugue in D minor (BMV 539) (arr. Mordechai Rechtman b. 1926) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).
Anniversary Variations on a Theme of Antonin Reicha from Wind Quintet in E flat major, Op. 88, No. 2.

This concert is the second of the four free concerts Princeton will put out this summer.  I have said on many occasions that I do not understand chamber music, and frankly a wind quintet did not hold a lot of attraction for me.  To me the music probably would be delightful but uninspiring.  I decided to go because Anne had a class to go to, and I wanted to meet up with David and Vivien since we hadn’t done so for a while.  It turns out there is nothing wrong with delightful yet uninspiring; I enjoyed the concert much more than I expected.  And it was good to meet up with our old friends.  David also provided considerable insight into the program, as he usually does.

I have heard a couple of Carter’s works before, and (looking back at my notes) heard one that was composed when he was young (1944) and one when he was much older (1996).  I found the first one quite enjoyable and the second one out of my reach.  Today’s piece was written during his “early period,” and indeed I enjoyed it.  In any case, one can only complicate things so much with five instruments.  There are only two movements: Allegretto and Allegro giocoso.

Kramer-Johansen then came to the podium to talk a bit about the first half of the program.  He described the Carter work as a great appetizer which I actually thought did the work a little injustice.  He then talked a bit about the Reicha piece.  I had never heard of Reicha before, and Wikipedia has a listing of his compositions that ends with Op. 107.  Op. 88 itself consists of six quintets.  In my (and no doubt many others’) defense, he was a contemporary of Beethoven and probably was eclipsed by him.  Many people wouldn’t have heard of Salieri either if it were not for the plays and movie that portray him as a hater of Mozart.  Here is what little I have found out about Reicha (is it Anton?): born in Prague, lived in Paris most of his life, and a friend of Beethoven’s.

The quintet doesn’t have the complexity and degree of contrast of a Beethoven work, and sounds like it is from an earlier period.  It was a delight to listen to, though.  The movements are (i) Lento – Allegro moderato; (ii) Scherzo: Allegro; (iii) Andante grazioso; and (iv) Finale: Allegro molto.

After the intermission, the clarinetist Benjamin Fingland talked about the second half’s program.  The Bach piece actually started life as a violin work (BWV 1001?) and was transcribed by the composer into an organ piece to become BWV 539 (he also added a prelude to it.)  [This would imply the BWV numbers are not chronological.]  Mordechai Rechtman, a long time a bassoonist at the Israel Philharmonic, transcribed that into a quintet.

This was another delight.  I told David afterwards that I really appreciated how easy it was – with the different instruments – to follow the different contrapuntal lines in the composition.  When it is played on one instrument by a soloist, the soloist tries to get her fingers to work independently, and the listener tries to follow along and locate the different voices.  In this transcription, the listener can simply relax and enjoy the music and the structure without working very hard at it.

The Dorian Quintet was started in 1961 (at Tanglewood), and for its 40th anniversary celebration it took a theme from the Reicha quintet (specifically its Andante grazioso movement) and asked five different composers to write a variation on it.  They only provided the key and the notes; no composer, no tempo, no dynamics.  Fingland relayed how the different composers reacted to the theme: one ridiculed it as being lightweight, one couldn’t make sense of it and decided to use the Dorian anagram “draino” as the title, one was so generous that he wrote four variations on it (even though only one was requested.)  Not everyone knew it was a Reicha theme.

In any case, in addition to the theme, these are the variations: (1) Con eleganza – Sir Richard Rodney Barrett (1936-2012); (2) Four Variations – George Perle (1915-2009); (3) Variation on a Reicha Theme – Billy Childs (b. 1957); (4) DRAINO VARIATION – Bruce Adolphe (b. 1955); and (5) Finale: Andante; Lento; Allegro – Lee Holby (1926-2011).

While the variations all sounded modern, there are enough of the theme fragments in them that the connection was reasonably obvious.  (And The Draino variations is appropriately titled.)  To the uninitiated – and that would include me – they could have all been written by the same composer.  As with modern music, the enjoyment is more on trying to analyze things than in the aesthetic appeal of the composition.  Given the rest of the program, I didn’t mind it at all.

I also came away happy that my scope of knowledge has been expanded a bit.  I don’t believe I had heard a wind quintet at all – and would have guessed English horn as the fifth instrument instead of the French horn (which is technically a brass instrument.)  I am also glad to hear Reicha for the first time.

The attendance wasn’t all that great.  Perhaps the threat of a tornado in the area kept people away?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano. June 20, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat MM105, $66.)

Piano Concerto in D major, Hob. XVIII: 11 (1780-84) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Symphony No. 3 (2011; New York Premiere) by Christopher Rouse (b. 1949).
A Ring Journy, a Suite from Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848-76) by Wagner (1813-83) arr. Alan Gilbert, after Erich Leinsdorf.

One of the tickets for this concert was an exchange from an earlier event that Anne couldn’t make.  When I checked a couple of days prior, I noticed there were only very few seats left, so I went ahead and bought one in the rear of the orchestra section.  Anne had the seat in row T, and I had the seat in row MM.  The acoustics, it turned out, was quite okay.

One would usually expect Ax to do a Beethoven or a modern piece, but instead today he chose a rather straightforward and short composition by Haydn.  The most curious about this work is musicologists have not been able to determine when it was actually composed; the only thing that is “almost certain” is that it was the last keyboard composition by Haydn.  It is a delight to listen to, but I couldn’t tell if it was a great performance.  The three movements are Vivace, Un poco adagio, and Rondo all’Ungherese (Allegro assai.)

Christopher Rouse is finishing up his first year as composer-in-residence at the Philharmonic.  Today’s work was written before he took up this appointment, it was jointly commissioned by several orchestras; his Prospero’s Rooms was premiered by the New York Philharmonic in April 2013, and Symphony No. 4 will be performed in 2014.  In a remote sense he and I had some connection: he studied composition under Karel Husa (among others,) and I played in the orchestra that Husa directed; probably around the same time.  I usually groan when it comes to listening to a modern piece like this as more often than not they are completely beyond my grasp.

The composer did write a short description of how the work (with the tempo marking ♪=176 Theme and Variations) which helped a lot in following the overall plot (plan.)  It actually made the piece understandable and enjoyable.  A seat in the orchestra section did not offer a good view of all the instruments, thus I wasn’t able to tell the difference between a Chinese cymbal, a crash cymbal, and a suspended cymbal; nor that between a tam-tam and a tom-tom.

Rouse also made a connection between this work and Prokofiev’s second symphony, making the claim that he followed Prokofiev’s architecture, and that Prokofiev was influenced by Beethoven’s last piano sonata.  He also said there was little in the way of quoted passages from the Prokofiev piece.  On top of that, the second was one of the more obscure symphonies of Prokofiev’s.  All I can say is that if I was asked to link Rouse’s work with another composer, Prokofiev would be way down the list; and I suspect I still won’t get the connection if I had had listened to it.

After reading through the Program Notes a couple of times, I still don’t quite know what Leinsdorf or Gilbert did to generate this evening’s suite from the 15-hour Ring cycle.  That this is also billed as the premiere performance of the Ring puzzles me even further as Maazel had done a “Ring without Words” when he was leading the orchestra.

Be that as it may, when you condense 15 hours into 50 or so minutes, things can sound quite interesting; especially if you extract the nicer, singable tunes, and repeat each of them several times.  The excerpts work very well as music, but there is no continuity to the story.  Having sit through the cycle three times, I can claim some familiarity to the music and the story.  All I heard were various vignettes.  When you see the operas, you listen for the leitmotivs; while they do appear here and there in this suite, they sounded more accidental than intentional.  Maazel’s adaptation was more true to the original plot; it at least started and ended with the Rhine.  The snobbish in me would say the Gilbert piece was more accessible to your typical concert-goer.

Having said all that, it was still a very enjoyable experience.  There is considerable difference when the orchestra is on center stage, where it gets all the attention, compared to when it is down in the pit.  Also, there was no need to worry about drowning out the singers.

Our friend played the lead (of two) in his section for the Haydn piece, and was at the assistant principal’s place for the Rouse and Wagner pieces.  Good for him.  Also, there were nine double basses for both the Rouse and Wagner pieces, and six harps for the Wagner piece.

I did not get tickets for this concert when I did my annual subscription, thinking it wasn’t going to be that exciting.  Both Anne and I thought it was very enjoyable.

The New York Times review is glowing.  The reviewer made the “connection” that Ax and Rouse are respectively the artist- and composer-in-residence.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Lionel Bringuier, conductor; Leonidas Kavakos, violin. June 14, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat T105, $72).

L’Apprenti sorcier: Scherzo d’apres une ballade de Goethe (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Scherzo after a ballad of Goethe) (1897) by Dukas (1865-1935).
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 (1935) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).
Galantai Tankoc (Dances of Galanta) (1933) by Kodaly (1882-1967).
Suite from L’oiseau de feu (The Firebird) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

For a concert that held such promise, this was somewhat of a disappointment.

Let’s start with the first piece.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is always a crowd pleaser.  It is one of the few compositions where association with a specific story line is quite straightforward – thanks of course to the Disney film Fantasia.  While the orchestra sounded precise, it sounded flat.

Perhaps my lack of excitement about the piece could be attributed to my familiarity with it.  Nonetheless, deep inside I was beginning to suspect this was going to be one of those concerts where “everything was done correctly but it still wasn’t that great”. 

I expressed my disappointment at Batiashvili’s performance of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto and was looking for a better experience with the second.  While my prior experience with Kavakos was not all positive, I did expect him to have the technique to pull it off.  Indeed he put in a much more polished and solid performance, but it was by-and-large uninspired.  In the past Kavakos’s playing reminded me of someone practicing an etude, and he was not all that different today.  The brilliant technique couldn’t make up for the emotionally flat performance.

I did learn from the Playbill a few things about the concerto: Prokofiev still lived in Paris when he began writing this piece, although he would return to Russia soon; this concerto was written quite a few years after the first, which was published in 1917; like many other Russian composers, Prokofiev is considered a great orchestrator.

During our trip to Europe last November we drove from Vienna to Budapest (well, the tour operator did) and I don’t remember passing through the town of Galanta, where Kodaly spent seven years as a child.  An examination of a map shows that the town is quite far away from the road connecting the two capitals. The piece performed today certainly sounded Hungarian; it would take a very knowledgeable musicologist to tell that it is influenced by folk songs from this specific region.  The Playbill does quote Kodaly as saying he took the principal themes from a book of music “after several Gypsies from Galanta.”  The tempo markings in the Playbill are: Lento; Allegretto moderato; Allegro con moto, con grazioso; Allegro; and Allegro vivace.  This may lead one to believe there are five different dances.  If they are, they are played without breaks, and each of the dances is not quite confined to the corresponding tempo.

The program concluded with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.  It at least to some degree salvaged today’s performance.  Even the Commentator’s writeup provided a lot of new and interesting information, which I either didn’t know or had forgotten.  The original ballet music was written in 1910, and the suite is much simplified a five movements, with relatively simple descriptions: (I) The Firebird and its dance; variations of the Firebird; (II) The Princesses’ Round-Dance (Khorovod); (III) Infernal Dance of King Kahschei; (IV) Lullaby; and (V) Finale.

This is a loud piece of music where things got a bit crazy, especially during the Infernal Dance.  Poor Rebecca Young, she just had to keep putting on and taking off her earplugs.  We are beginning to worry if her hearing is beginning to deteriorate; we wish her well.

For some reason, the Program Notes stresses that each composer is a great orchestrator: “dazzling orchestration” for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; “a master orchestrator” for Prokofiev; “brilliantly orchestrated modernism” for Kodaly; and “a great showpiece of orchestration” for The Firebird.  Which brings me to the conductor, a young fellow born in 1986.  He certainly has gone places already, finishing up a six-year stint with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as its resident conductor (that means he started when he was 20!)  He is also the chief conductor of Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra, and will be its music director starting in the 2014-2015 season.

Today’s concert started at 2 pm.  Since I had no idea if the return traffic would be bad for a Summer Friday, we took the train.

The New York Times review is very positive.  It does remind me that I have seen a couple of Bringuier’s performances before.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Lisa Batiashvili, violin. June 11, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat T104, $72).

Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 19 (1917) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).
Il prigioniero (1944-48) by Dallapiccola (1904-75).

Cast in Order of Appearance in Il prigioniero: The mother – Patricia Racette, the prisoner – Gerald Finley, the jailer/grand inquisitor – Peter Hoare, first priest – William Ferguson, second priest – Sidney Outlaw, The Collegiate Chorale (Dan Saunders, music preparation.)

This is the New York Philharmonic premiere of this opera by Luigi Dallapiccola.  It is about the experience of a single prisoner during the Spanish Inquisition, but was meant to reflect the tumultuous times experienced by the composer during the second world war, during which he had to live in concealment in and around Florence because he was part Jewish.  There is no synopsis provided in the Playbill, and the story about the jailer giving the prisoner false hope is simple enough that I am not bothering with searching for one on the web.

A rather full orchestra was used for this performance, and the Instrumentation in the Program Notes contains a long list of different instruments.  It is too bad that our seats, while acoustically great, did not provide for a bird’s eye view of the stage; we were thus unable to find out what a “suspended cymbal” or a “cymbal attached to bass drum” looks like.

I always wonder if having the singers on the same stage as the orchestra would work without any amplification for the voices.  In this case we could hear the singing because everyone was shouting at the top of their lungs.  It must have been quite a strain for Finley singing the role of the prisoner, and he did a great job.

As vocal music the composition worked quite well.  Even though Dallapiccola composed on a 12-tone scale ala Schoenberg, I found the music quite easy to “understand” and liked its structure and texture.  As an opera it didn’t evoke the emotion that I expected.  While I could follow along since English subtitles were provided, I didn’t get the anguish that should be easily conveyed by the story.  The Collegiate Chorale must have about 100 people in it (roster actually has 120 names,) and it sounded great for the few moments it was called on to sing.  A small ensemble (20 according to Playbill) was also used.  From what I could tell, they were members of this larger chorale.  The individual artists sang in Italian, and the Chorale and Ensemble sang in Latin.  Question: what was there no translation from the Latin?

The best way to describe this experience: interesting.

Prokofiev’s first violin concerto is not as familiar to me as the second.  Given our seats, I expected a great experience.  And Batisshvili put in a good performance.  She met the technical challenges – and there were many – head on, with ease.  On the other hand, I found the sound a bit on the weak side, which is unexpected for a late-Stradivarius, and the whole performance emotionally flat.  I heard her performing the second concerto a few years back and really enjoyed it.  According to my notes, she is using a different violin (now the 1715 “ex-Joachim”, then a 1709 “Engleman”); perhaps that partially explains the difference?

Turns out later this week I will be hearing Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, to be performed by Leonidas Kavakos.  I wonder how it will compare.