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.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Metropolitan Opera – Shostakovich’s The Nose. October 8, 2013.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat C117, $87.50).

Conductor – Valery Gergiev; Kovalyov – Paulo Szot, Police Inspector – Andrey Popov, The Nose – Alexander Lewis.

Story.  Kovalyov gets a shave in Yakovlevich’s barbershop, and the barber finds a nose in a loaf of bread the next day.  As he tries to dispose of it, he is taken in by the police for questioning.  When Kovalyov discovers he is missing his nose, he goes about looking for it.  He first finds it grown in size and dressed as a Sate Councilor, but it escapes.  Kovalyov then goes on a quest to get his nose back, to no avail.  Eventually, the nose is arrested, beaten back to its normal size, and returned to Kovalyov  After a few unsuccessful attempts in reattaching the nose, Kovalyov finally succeeds, to his great joy.

First, let me prove that I can be very positive about things of this sort by writing a short summary.

This delightfully-staged and well-executed opera illustrates the absurdity of life through the tumultuous, farcical, and ultimately successful yet trivial pursuit of a person’s quest.  Under the precise direction of Maestro Gergiev, the orchestra produced a crispy sound very much in harmony with the excellent and well-time comedy happening on stage.  The audience was engrossed by the great singing of the artists, and the atonal music actually helped propel the story along effortlessly. The thunderous applause at curtain call was a fitting conclusion to a most enjoyable evening.

I guess I am still smarting from a remark someone left on this blog.  This time, however, I didn’t quote from the opera’s advertisement.  The paragraph above is entirely my own, and mostly true.

Actually, I am beginning to like Shostakovich.  This is quite a change in attitude from my days as a student reporter (for a major Hong Kong newspaper) during my high school years.  I now readily recall how much I enjoyed his cello concerto and his string quartet.  The cello concerto was written when he was in his 50s, the string quarter (No. 15) in his 60s.  This opera, however, was written when he was 22.  The Playbill notes, which I read in advance, talks about the score as being difficult to categorize, atonal, and non-lyrical (even “anti-lyrical,” whatever that means).  While all that may be true, I did find the music to be taut and sensible, and there are some passages that can be passed off as lyrical (even they may be satirical in intention.)  While the overall instrumentation is complex, most of the music is on the simple side.  Oftentimes the vocal parts have an instrument double, and the effect is quite pleasant.  I suspect I will never learn in depth how Shostakovich’s music evolved over his career, but I am sure it has been quite a few music school theses over the years.

The staging is clever and pleasant.  In addition to the set, there are projections that keep the audience glued to what was happening on stage.  There are these projected shadows that eventually coalesce into a portrait of Shostakovich and Stalin (I think) that are cleverly done.  It makes me think of Picasso’s cubism (no kidding) where he disassembles an object (often a naked woman) and then paints a portrait that only the initiated can understand (I am not among them.)  Another clever technique is the continuation of an action (say running on a catwalk) with a shadow projection.  In additional to the Met titles in front of every seat, the English translation is also projected onto the stage, sometimes on the ledge at the front, sometimes as a prop-like object in the back.  In theory the concert-goer doesn’t have to move his head up and down constantly; in practice I found it a bit confusing.

The main page of the program shows only three members in the cast.  One would think this opera would be a three-person show.  The detailed listing of the Acts and Scenes, however, shows a long list of names (some duplicates.)  There are 70 sung roles (per Playbill), although some can be combined, and lots of chorus members.  At curtain call there are 30 or so people who came out to take a bow.  Indeed some of the sung roles are quite substantial – I can think of Podtochina and her daughter, the pretzel vendor, the barber and his wife.  In that regard, the nose itself didn’t do a lot of singing, even though it is the title role and is on stage quite a bit.  I wonder how people decide what roles are the headliner ones.

How much does the opera cause me to think about the trivialities of life?  I am typing this about 14 hours after seeing the show, and the answer is “not much.”  And the applause was warm but far from thunderous.

It was a pleasant two hours of comedy and interesting music, though.  The New York Times review sings praises to all aspects of the opera.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. October 1, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat R111, $68.50).

Alborada del gracioso (Dawn Song of the Jester) (1904-05/orch. 1918) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1961) by Bernstein (1918-90).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (1874-75, 1889) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).

This was the first concert for the season for which we had tickets.  Anne had to be Washington DC for a meeting (despite the government shut-down), so I went by myself.  The 5:25 pm train got me into town early enough that I managed to exchange some future tickets for which we had schedule conflicts.

The most interesting aspect about the Ravel piece is that it doesn’t sound like Ravel at all.  (I am making the statement with full knowledge that my exposure to Ravel is quite limited.)  As described in the program notes, the piece is very Spanish in character.  Ravel’s link to Spain evidently was through his mother who spent her youth in Madrid.

Regardless, this “song” was originally a movement in Ravel’s Miroirs Suite for the piano, and Diaghilev commissioned the composer to create an orchestral version for a ballet.  The performance showcased New York Philharmonic’s ability to have a wide dynamic range.  As to the interpretation, there is an interesting excerpt in the Program Notes about the piano version: it may be the most difficult piece technically, and Ravel wanted it played tautly and in a lively tempo.  The orchestral version certainly sounded difficult enough, and was played at a respectable pace.  However, it was more along the lines of “caution occasioned by the difficulty of the work.”

West Side Story is variation on the theme of Romeo and Juliet.  Instead of Capulets and Montagues we have rival New York City gangs; at the end only one of the protagonists (Tony) dies while Maria survives.  The musical opened in 1957, and in 1961 Bernstein extracted nine sections to assemble into tonight’s set of Symphonic Dances, including the most popular tunes “Somewhere” and “Maria.”  The sections are: Prologue (Allegro moderato); “Somewhere” (Adagio); Scherzo (Vivace leggiero); Mambo (Presto); Cha-Cha (Andantino con grazia); Meeting Scene (Meno moss); “Cool” Fugue (Allegretto); Rumble (Molto allegro); and Finale (Adagio).  Per the Program Notes, the uninterrupted sequence is derived from a strictly musical rationale; I imagine that also means it is not a synopsis of the plot.

As far as I know, West Side Story is rarely staged, and I have never had the chance to see it live.  I am, however, familiar with the two tunes, and appreciated them.  The piece is 22 minutes in duration, and the phrases “too long,” “too repetitive,” and “too loud” all came to mind.  Speaking of loud: at times I really worried about the harm done to the players (not just our ear-plug wearing violist.)

During the intermission I chatted briefly with the gentleman sitting next to me (he got the seat we returned.)  He was saying Gilbert is a bit too precise for his taste, and thus far I agreed with him.  Actually, I still recall how disappointed I was with the first concert of the last New York Philharmonic season.  And by this time I was worried tonight was going to be a repeat of that evening.

So it was a good thing that Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto was on the menu after the intermission.  It certainly salvaged the overall concert.

A few things I learned from the Program Notes that are worth repeating.  First is that Tchaikovsky wasn’t “much of a pianist” and thus solicited the help of Nikolai Rubinstein on technical matters.  And it shared the same fate as the Violin Concerto (Leopold Auer in that case): Rubinstein pronounced it worthless and unplayable.  Tchaikovsky decided to publish the piece anyway, and premiered it in Boston with Hans von Bulow at an American Chickering piano and an orchestra of freelancers conducted by Benjamin Johnson Lang (described as “long-forgotten”).  He also changed the dedication to von Bulow.  The piece was a sensation.  Rubinstein did come around and led the piece in Moscow in late 1875; and Tchaikovsky also revised the score, twice.

We have heard Bronfman before on many occasions, and admire his skills as a technician and (most of the time) his interpretation as a musician.  Tonight he did well on both counts.

It is always dangerous to perform a familiar piece of music since in the listener’s mind there may be an “idealized” version of how it should be placed.  And indeed there are variations in the tempo of certain measures that I didn’t expect.  In tonight’s case they made the music more interesting.  And familiar doesn’t mean easy, and there are challenging passages in the music (at least for a non-piano player like me.)  Bronfman dispatched those brilliantly.  It was in a way that kept me on the edge of my seat, though – and I kept thinking how Trifonov’s stab at difficult runs did not worry me.  The applause afterwards was thunderous, and well-deserved.

In any case, afterwards my neighbor and I both agreed it was appropriately wild.

Alan Gilbert usually writes a couple of paragraphs on the programs he leads.  He has a lot of praise for Bronfman and expresses how much they enjoy their collaboration.  All good.  He also talks about their warm and natural relationship offstage, sharing a love of good food and wine.  I must say on that he is right on, more so for Bronfman than himself.

This was an overall good evening, although I expected more.

Note added 10/9/2013.  I found out I didn't immediately look for a New York Times review.  And here it is.