Friday, July 26, 2013

Orchestra of the Royal Northern College of Music of Manchester. Roland Boer, conductor; Justus Grimm, cello. July 24, 2013.

Piazza Grande, Montepulciano, Italy.  E21.50.

Le fontane di Roma P. 106 (1916) by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936).
Concerto per violoncello in mi minore op. 85 (1919) by Edward Elgar (1857-1934).
Fluss ohne Ufer (Fiume senza argini) (2008) by Detlev Glanert (b. 1960).
La Mer, trios esquisses symphoniques (1905) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

We are spending the week in Tuscany.  This area is characterized by rolling hills, small towns built around castles, and shops that sell cheese, salami, and wine.  We have visited several of these towns, and they all seem to have some sort of music festival going on.  Montepulciano, in particular, has an “International Arts Festival” going on from July 19 to 28.  We asked about an operatic performance, unfortunately that was canceled.  However, this symphonic concert, part of the Cantiere 38 series (the name of the festival), was going to be staged.

The Piazza Grande makes for an interesting concert venue.  Even though it is at a high point in the city, it is not level.  The stage is in front of the duomo, and (perhaps) 15 rows of chairs of about 50 each arranged in front of it.  In the back there is a small bleachers section.  So perhaps 1000 people when filled to capacity (there would still be a lot of standing room around).  For tonight I estimate fewer than 300 were in attendance.

Being an open plaza, sound insulation is a problem, especially since there are a couple of restaurants that are at the corners of the square, and people here eat late.  So we could hear the clinking of silverware throughout the concert.

The program notes describes Fluss ohne Ufer in an interesting way, stating that by the time the piece is done the audience will not remember any of the orchestral themes.  There is indeed quite a bit of “shimmering” to denote water, but other than that I didn’t get much out of it.  It was close to 20 minutes in length, at least it felt that long.  The composer was in attendance and came out for a bow.  His opera will be performed this coming Friday, I think we will skip it.

The evening started with a piece by Respighi that many had no doubt heard about, but not necessarily had heard.  Of course being in Italy, things may be a bit different with an Italian composer.  The composition has four movements that evoke different well-known fountains in Rome: (1) La fontana di Valle Giulia all’Alba.  Andante mosso. (2) La fontana del Tritone al mattino.  Vivo, Un poco meno allegretto, Piu vivo gaiamente; (3) La fontana di Trevi al meriggio.  Allegro moderato, Allegro vivace, Piu vivace, Largamente, Calmo; and (4) La fontana di Villa Medici al tramonto.  Andante, Meno mosso, Andante come prima.  Having just visited Rome last week, I somewhat kick myself for not having visited any of these fountains.

I had heard the Elgar Cello Concerto once before in Hong Kong, and recall liking it.  Tonight’s soloist is German, in his 40s.  The thing that caught my attention right away was how nice the sound was, whether the high or the low register.  This is a piece that has both melodic and virtuoso elements to it, and Grimm did both well.  For encore he played Saint Saens Cygnet, accompanied by two harps.

The last piece was Debussy’s La Mer, which I have heard on several prior occasions.  It is only today that I found out from the Notes that Debussy was beginning to move away from the “debussyism” that most music listeners are familiar with.  Although I must say in this composition the deviations, if detectable, are quite small.  Knowing what I know now, I must say the piece seems to be heavier duty than your typical Debussy.  The three sections of La Mer are (1) De l’aube a midi sur la mer; Tres lent; (2) Le Jeu des vagues; Allegro; and (3) Le dialogue du vent et de la mer; Anime et tumultueux.

Overall it is an enjoyable concert.  I do wonder how they decide on the programming.  First, it is way too long.  I joked to Anne that by the intermission we already got our money’s worth and could leave.  With a late start and an intermission, we didn’t get done until about 11:45 pm or so.  This is late even for some Italians, and many left before the end of the concert, which is a pity and discouraging since there were not that many people to begin with.  While the compositions are not that esoteric (with the exception of the Glanert piece,) it still would be nice to throw in a Beethoven or something to make the program more accessible.  With music festivals you always wonder whether the programmer is trying to be popular or to impress his colleagues.  I have a suspicion much of the latter drove today’s programming.

The orchestra apparently consists of music students at this Manchester college.  Anne remarked that there were no Asians in the group, which is a bit odd.  The concertmaster, a young lady,  had quite a few solo lines to play but was unfortunately a bit weak.  The conductor did his job with a lot of animation, but I wish he had brought out more contrast from the musicians.

This area gets quite warm (around 90) during the day, but night time temperatures are in the 60s.  With a good evening breeze going, we felt quite cold towards the end.  We rushed back to the car at the conclusion for the short drive back to La Bruciata.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Teatro dell’Opera di Roma – Verdi’s Nabucodonosor. July 18, 2013.

Teatro dell’Opera, Rome.    PLATEA (Row 10, Seat 13, Euro 115).

Conductor – Riccardo Muti; Nabucodonosor – Luca Salsi, Ismaele – Francesco Meli, Zaccaria – Riccardo Zanellato, Abigaille – Tatiana Serjan, Fenena – Sonia Ganassi, Il Gran Sacerdote di Belo – Luca Dall’Amico.

Story.  See previous post.

We are on a family trip to Italy, Anne and I don’t have a lot planned other than to be with our children, their spouses, and our 6-month old granddaughter.  I found out a couple of months ago that this was going to be on during our short stay in Rome.  I tried on many occasions to book tickets over the web with my limited Italian skills, but always got to a “system down” page at the end.  On our day of arrival in Rome (July 17) we went to the Opera House right after we checked into the hotel – it is a 5 minute walk – and there were four seats left, all at E115.  While they were among the more expensive seats for the theater, we thought it was a bargain since we were in the 10th row, slightly off to the left.  Turns out from what we would call the Orchestra section we couldn’t see the orchestra, but we had a good view of the conductor.  To our chagrin, but not surprise, none of our children wanted to come.

My expectation was this would be as Italian as things go: Italian conductor, Italian composer, and an opera with a tune (Hebrew Slave Chorus) very much identified by Italians.  There was one more Italian aspect that I hadn’t figured in: an Italian audience.  They seemed to have little qualms with whispering (as the saying goes, not as quietly as they think they do,) nor with taking pictures during the performance.  I am sure the flashes were unintentional.  They do seem to dress up more properly than a typical Metropolitan Opera audience.  I can’t figure out how the men in suits keep their cool in this warm weather (90s).

Being “very Italian” would mean the program is in Italian, and the surtitles would be in Italian.  That was okay.  While I would love to understand the words as they were being sung, I did read up on the synopsis so I could basically tell what was going on.  Of course any humor or momentary tension would have been lost on me.

Overall, we enjoyed the performance and the experience.  Most of Verdi’s operas contain many lyrical tunes, this one is non exception.  The Hebrew Slave Chorus (va, pensiero) is always enjoyable.  We got to see Muti as an opera conductor for the first time.  One would never expect how ornate the opera house is, especially given how unassuming and simplistic the fa├žade is.  We were quite impressed and couldn’t resist taking a few pictures (not during the performance, I haste to add.)

Now the nitpicking – some nits may have hatched into lice already, actually.  I must start with the sets, or lack thereof.  Act I shows some things dropping down from the ceiling onto a conical pile on the stage.  Even now I can’t imagine what that is supposed to be.  There are some background panels: one showing an overcast sky with the sun peeking through, the other with the silhouettes of four trees that got doubled to eight for the last Act, the significance of which also escapes me.  Oh, there are also these panels to represent the temple/palace.

The singing was generally okay.  Other than the time in Sydney watching Madama Butterfly, I had never had a seat that close to the stage, so I certainly could hear the singers very well.  Those who think the acoustics is great high up in the theater, while correct, perhaps have never sit up front before.  However, to an amateur like me, most voices don’t have the refined quality I’d come to expect from opera singers.  One exception for me was Abigaille sung by the Russian Tatiana Serjan.  When I heard Maria Guleghina singing the same role at the Met in October 2011, my complaint was that she had only one volume: loud.  Here Serjan demonstrated that Abigaille can be wistful as well.  I particularly admire her courage in singing in Italian in front of this audience.

Another aspect of opera performance that I am beginning to appreciate is how engaged the conductor is with the vocal parts. Muti was no exception.  He did most of the conducting sitting down, except when he had to cue in the voices, at which times he would stand up.  As far as I could tell, he used very precise gestures to shape the lines, and even to cue the syllables.  (Anne thought it wasn’t precise enough.)

That makes the Hebrew Slave Chorus particularly disappointing.  I was closed to being shocked how imprecise the chorus members were in this relatively simple tune.  Despite my trying to just enjoy the moment, I couldn’t help noticing the many instances where some voices would come in early (or others coming in late.)  The applause afterwards lasted forever, Muti finally said something to the audience, and redid the number.  This time around I tried to follow Muti’s movements and really thought I could follow him along – of course lip sync and actual singing are two different things.  And the chorus also did better.

With the encore of this number, and with two intermissions, the 2 hour opera turned into a much longer than expected event.  We didn’t get back to the hotel room until after midnight.  We told our children we should be back by 11:15 pm, that got them a bit worried.  It was amazing that people were still having dinner so late on a weeknight.

We were glad we went.  Anne and I actually had dinner by ourselves (not quite by design) before the show.  Today was our 37th wedding anniversary.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor. June 28, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat W11, $72).

Program – A Dancer’s Dream
La Baiser de la fee (The Fairy’s Kiss) (1928, rev. 1950) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Excerpts from Neige (Snow) for Piano Four-Hands, Op. 7 (1918) by Durey (1888-1979).
Petrushka (1911) by Stravinsky.

Eric Huebner, Steve Beck, Piano.
Ballerina/Columbine – Sara Mearns, The Moor (on film) – Eric Owens, Petrushka (on film) – Anthony Roth Costanzo, Lover/Puppeteer – Amar Ramasar, Shadow – Abbey Roesner, Performers/Puppeteers – William da Silver, Vincent McCloskey, Atmosphericist – Monica Lerch, Steadicam Operator – Giacomo Belletti, Tripod Camera – Matt Manning, Cover Dancer – Zachary Catazaro.

In the weeks prior to the concert, I received several emails from New York Philharmonic asking me to make sure I exchange or donate my tickets if I don’t plan to attend this concert.  There was apparently great demand for them and all three performances were sold out.  Not that we were planning not to go, the correspondences certainly heightened our interest.

The two Stravinsky compositions are ballet music, neither of which I had heard before.  Petrushka of course is the better know of the two.  The Fairy’s Kiss was commissioned by Ida Rubinstein who had left Diaghilev to form her own dance company.  It was to be inspired by Tchaikovsky whom Stravinsky admired greatly.  All together, 16 Tchaikovsky compositions were referenced.  The only tune that is familiar to me is “Strangers in Paradise.”  Of course Stravinsky knew about half of them before he got started on this piece.

The story is based on the writings of Hans Christian Andersen, and I quote the plot from the Playbill: “A fairy marks a young man with her mysterious kiss while he is still a child.  She withdraws him from his mother’s arms.  She withdraws him from life on the day of his greatest happiness in order to possess him and preserve this happiness forever.  She marks him once more with her kiss.”  The ballet is set in four scenes – The Prologue, The Village Fete, By the Mill, and Epilogue.

As with the entire concert, the more memorable aspects are the non-traditional ones.  Sara Mearns, who ended up dancing throughout most of the program, stood from the audience and walked up to the stage at the beginning of the piece.  There is a large screen hanging on stage where different images are projected.  Oftentimes the images are objects on stage shot with a hand-held camera.  For example, for the “By the Mill” scene we have a small house with a water wheel next to it, complete with a small piece of transparent plastic to represent the water. Sometimes pre-recorded video clips are shown.  There are also other dancers who sometimes double as puppeteers.  All these certainly make for very busy viewing on the audience’s part.

To join in the fun, the orchestra members are dressed up in (what one would like to pass off as) Russian garb – mostly caps and scarves.  They would also move around or otherwise make fools of themselves.  Rebecca Young actually came to the front during Petrushka and did a few dance moves that were passable as professional.

The Fairy’s Kiss ended up being about 10 minutes longer than the advertised 44 minutes.  Actually I thought they cut out the piano piece since intermission came right afterwards.  They did perform it as an Entr’Acte piece at the beginning of the second half.  While pleasant enough, there is not much memorable about the piece.  The only thing interesting is that the composer Louis Durey eventually became a composer of political music, including choral compositions based on texts by Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong.

Petrushka consists of four Tableaux: (I) The Shrovetide Fair; (II) Petrushka’s Room; (III) The Moor’s Room; and (IV) The Shrovetide Fair.  The protagonists are all puppets: Petrushka the clown, the Moor, and the Ballerina.  The puppet play has a simple plot: Petrushka loves the ballerina, but she falls for the Moor instead; the Moor ends up killing Petrushka; the crowd is reassured that it was all a puppet show; after the crowd leaves, Petrushka’s ghost rises.  While Stravinsky made major revisions to it in 1947, the original version - described by the Playbill as "inventive and colorful to the point of extravagance" - was performed tonight.

The stories for both ballets are simple enough.  Yet I couldn’t make heads and tails of what the dancers were trying to portray.  This is particularly true with The Fairy’s Kiss.  I don’t know in a “real” ballet who would be the protagonist character, but if it is a woman it would have to be fairy given the number of times it is mentioned in the synopsis.  And I am sure Mearns wasn’t dancing that part.  It is a little better with Petrushka as both the Moor and the Clown show up in video clips.  There my major issue is that both Eric Owens (of Alberich fame) and Anthony Costanzo (whom I liked in The Enchanted Island) were used as only actors, and taped performances at that.

Most of my mental energy was spent trying to understand the story and keep track of the happenings on stage.  If I have to say something about the performance, I have to guess it was okay.  As in the Wagner Ring Journey performance, being center stage certainly helps with the clarify of the music.

Not soon after the start of the performance, my reaction was this is like a combination of New York Pops and New York City Opera.  This can either be a statement of praise, or a statement of disdain, all depending on what your expectations are.  There certainly is no doubt that New York Philharmonic can put out a great Pops concert, but should they?  To my surprise, I did read that Mearns and Ramasar are with the New York City Opera (after I made my assessment, honest.)  Gilbert seems to want to do these edgy things every now and then.

We decided to take the train in.  The concert ended at a little before 10 pm.  We rushed out of there right afterwards and caught the 10:18 train home, with perhaps a minute to spare.  That – unfortunately - was the highlight of the evening.

The New York Times review concentrates on the dance aspects and Sara Mearns, and is mixed.