Friday, November 22, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor. November 21, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat G101, $54.)

Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31 (1943) by Britten (1913-76).
Spring Symphony, Op. 44 (1948-49) by Britten.

Philip Myers, horn; Kate Royal, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano, Michael Slattery, tenor; Dominic Armstrong, tenor; New York Choral Artists – Joseph Flummerfelt, director; Brooklyn Youth Chorus – Dianne Berkum-Menaker, director.

Somehow there seem to be more Britten celebrations for his 100th birthday than there are for Verdi’s and Wagner’s 200th.  I purchased these tickets before I went to the (non-subscription) Singapore Symphony concert (where his piano concerto was played) and the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both in October.)  If I had all this planned out in advance, I probably would not have gotten tickets to this concert, thinking I would be “Brittened out” by now.  An awkward way of saying, “but that would be a mistake.”

Also, I wouldn’t have heard Gilbert’s introduction to the program.  I had already gotten an email saying that the original tenor slated for the program, Paul Appleby, withdrew and would be replaced by two different tenors for the two compositions.  So it was “blah blah blah” as Gilbert talked about how they scrambled to look for replacements.  I think everyone’s ears perked up when he said one of them only saw the music for the first time the night before.  If Gilbert was looking for sympathy from the audience, it wasn’t necessary; I certainly wouldn’t have realized that was the case.  I walked away impressed, but more on that later.

The last two Britten performances (piano concerto and opera) were a bit beyond me, even though I enjoyed them.  Tonight’s two pieces restored my faith that I do get Britten’s music, albeit at a possibly superficial level.

The Serenade, written for a solo horn, a solo tenor, and a string orchestra, was particularly easy to understand and appreciate.  It began and concluded with a solo by Philip Myers, the Philharmonic’s principal horn.  The beginning was a bit shaky as Myers seemed to have some problems with hitting and holding the correct pitches.  I also worried if he was going to affirm the reputation (or rather notoriety) of the brass section being too loud.  Things greatly improved as the 25 minute piece progressed, though.

In addition to the solo horn prolog and epilog (the latter being played offstage), the selections in the Seranade are (i) Pastoral – The Evening Quatrains by Charles Cotton; (ii) Nocturne – Blow, Bugle, Blow by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; (iii) Elegy – The Sick Rose by William Blake; (iv) Dirge – Anonymous; (v) Hymn – Hymn to Diana by Ben Johnson; and (vi) Sonnet – To Sleep by John Keats.  While the Program Notes describes the general narrative as depicting night and the tricks it conjures, I heard it mostly as a reminder of death (the titles of the last three poems make that quite clear.)  Indeed I thought in addition to the bucolic and restful imagery, the work is infused with resignation and sadness.  The words to Dirge actually remind me of the lullaby “Hush little baby don’t say a word.”

I was a bit surprised that I picked a seat in Row G when I ordered the tickets.  Turns out Row G is the second row as the stage was extended to accommodate the large ensembles for the Symphony.  The string orchestra was small enough that we could see beyond the outermost lineup of members.  However, we were very close to the horn and relatively far from the tenor.  The balance was still okay (except for the beginning noted above.)

The Symphony was complex as the Serenade was simple.  In addition to a full orchestra with its accoutrement of exotic percussion instruments, the Symphony also calls for three solo voices, a chorus, and a children’s chorus.

I suspect most people were like me: wondering how the tenor Armstrong would do.  In my case it became a non-issue soon after things got started: it sounded as if the piece was in his standard repertoire.  Now there was this young man (assistant conductor Case Scaglione?) sitting in the first row with the full music score who would give Armstrong cues every now and then, but I suspect that was a backup plan that ended up being only marginally necessary.

This work reminds me a bit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in that the music is probably much more complex than it sounds.  I walked away enjoying the tunes, the interplay of the different parts, and the story (such as it was) conveyed by the words.  I also suspect I will gain new insight into how Britten put it together if I listen to it again.  Britten draws a parallel between his musicianship and that of Mahler’s and how he appreciates Mahler’s sense of form, using this symphony and the Requiem as examples.  I didn’t get that, and certainly won’t mistake this as something written by Mahler, whose music never sounds simple to me.

The Symphony’s mood is set by the poems selected, and by a “particularly lovely Spring day in East Suffolk, the Suffolk of Constable and Gainsborough.”  The 45-minute work is divided into four parts, each part in turn contains several poems.  Part I – Introduction: (i) Shine Out by Anonymous, (ii) The Merry Cuckoo by Edmund Spenser; (iii) Spring by Thomas Nashe; (iv) Whenas the Rye/The Driving Boy by George Peele/John Clare; (v) The Morning Star (On May Morning) by John Milton.  Part II: (i) Welcome Maids of Honour (To Violets) by Robert Herrick; (ii) Waters Above (The Shower) by Henry Vaugh; (iii) Out on the lawn I lie in bed by W. H. Auden.  Part III: (i) When will my May come? by Richard Barnfield; (ii) Fair and Fair (Song of Oenone and Paris) by George Peele; (iii) Sound the Flute! (Spring) by William Blake.  Part IV – Finale: (i) London, to thee I do present by Francis Beaumont/John Fletcher; (ii) Soomer is i-coomen in by Anonymous.  At the conclusion there were some words about “Long live the king” and “Death to treasoners” that weren’t in the Program Notes.  They are still question marks in my mind.

The artists all did well, without the horn hoarding the acoustic space, the balance was quite satisfactory.  With so much squeezed into 45 minutes, there wasn’t a role that was particularly outstanding, though.  The other interesting thing is while Britten’s music generally has a distinct tune (or several going on simultaneously,) it is atonal in that there is no definite key to it.  I was remarking to myself how would I know if the singers are off, singing in the wrong key?  Of course in some places we have traditional harmonies, but in many instances it is more a contrapuntal relationship among the voices.

Much to Anne’s surprise, and somewhat to my own, I really enjoyed this concert.  Attendance was reasonable; however, many of the seats with these “Subscriber Appreciation Letters” pinned on them were not occupied – we did claim our gift of some holiday cards.  I am sure the subsequent performances will get better as the “stand-ins” get more comfortable; I wish them well.

Here is the New York Times review.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Liang Wang, oboe. November 15, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Q19, $41.)

Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888) by R. Strauss (1864-1949).
Oboe Concerto (2004) by Christopher Rouse (b. 1949).
Also sprach Zarathustra, Tone Poem for Large Orchestra, Op. 30 (1895-1896) by Strauss.

Speaking of shallow, I wanted to go to this concert because of the first few measures of “Also sprach” which was made famous by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The part played in the film is about 1:30 minutes in length.  That discounted tickets were offered on Goldstar clinched it.  Anne, ever the trooper, agreed to come along even though she had to rush out after her class.

A review of my prior blog entries confirmed that I had listened to Don Juan before.  While today’s performance didn’t leave me awed, it was certainly quite well performed – I called the September 24, 2010 performance “muddled and chaotic.”  I still couldn’t figure out how many women were depicted in the composition, though.

Rouse is in his second year as composer-in-residence at the Philharmonic.  This oboe concerto was written in 2004.  In the Playbill Rouse says his work can be classified roughly into “somber” and “genial,” with the Oboe Concerto falling into the latter category.  Liang Wang has been with the Philharmonic since 2006, and we certainly have heard the sound of his oboe many times before.  We also saw him in a chamber music concert at the 92Y a couple of years back.  What we heard today was a confirmation of his virtuosity.  I still recall when in college someone talking about the oboe playing a passage of 38 measures in one breath (forgot what was said about the tempo.)  It was amazing that Wang’s face didn’t turn red more often than it did.  Since I know little about the oboe other than its sound, I don’t know what other virtuoso techniques there are to the instrument.  He certainly had a lot of fast staccato passages, which is probably difficult with any instrument.  The other thing that was interesting is how the solo part would come through against a rather large orchestra, even accounting for lack of oboes in the orchestra section.

Again looking back at my notes, I enjoyed listening to Rouse’s symphony (No. 3, played on June 20, 2013.)  I did attribute that enjoyment to the composer’s overall description of the plot.  Alas, such a description doesn’t exist for today’s concert: even he says “there is no overt program to this piece.”  Now he does say the five-note chord played by the strings is the key; unfortunately I wasn’t paying attention at the start.  Rouse again uses movement markings that I don’t find particularly helpful: (i) Sereno – Molto allegro; (ii) ♪ = 50; (iii) Subito ♪ = 176 - ♪ = 50.  The movements were played without pause.

Also sprach Zarathrustra was inspired by Nietzsche’s book of the same title.  Nietsche’s generally pessimistic philosophy, other than perhaps “god is dead,” is beyond me.  Strauss did provide a structure for his composition, which is (i) Sunrise, (ii) Of those of the Unseen World, (iii) Of the Great Longing, (iv) Of Joy and Passions, (v) The Dirge, (vi) Of Science, (vii) The Convalescent, (viii) Dance Song, and (ix) Night Wanderer’s Song.  “Sunrise” was the familiar 1:30 introduction to the piece that brought me to the concert.  I am embarrassed that I couldn’t associate the music with the program after that.  Actually the Sunrise was also the most dramatic part of the piece, it was as they say all down hill from there.

In Gilbert’s notes for today’s program, he talks about Glenn Dicterow’s influence on him and the orchestra during the 30-some years he has been the concertmaster.  Dicterow is the one who picked the two Strauss pieces as “ iconic works for the concertmaster.”  I am sure he is a great musician, effective leader, and contributed majorly to the sustained prominence of the New York Philharmonic as a world-class orchestra during his tenure.  However, I really haven’t been very impressed by him either as a soloist or playing solo lines as concertmaster.  Today he sounded particularly weak.

The New York Times review talks mostly about the Rouse piece and how Wang nailed it.  The reviewer also liked Dicterow's playing.

Anne and I met up at the Cheeesquake rest area and drove in.  Traffic was a breeze.  We decided to come back to New Jersey right away after the concert, not wanting to contend with Friday night traffic.  Some trees fell onto the helix coming out of Lincoln Tunnel, so traffic was backed up all the way – for us the drive from 66th to the tunnel (a little over a mile) took two hours.  That certainly put a damper on our evening’s plans.  I still enjoyed the Arthur Treacher’s dinner at Cheesequake, though.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

New York Philharmonic Open Rehearsal – Bernard Labadie, conductor; Miah Persson, soprano. November 7, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra Right ($0.)

Cantata No. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51 (1730) by J.S. Bach (1685-1750).
Let the Bright Seraphim,” from the oratorio Samson, HWV 57 (1742) by Handel (1685-1759).
Requiem, K.626 (1791; completed by Robert D. Levin, 1993) by Mozart (1756-91).

Miah Persson, soprano; Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano; Frederic Antoun, tenor; Andrew Foster-Williams, bass; Matthew Muckey, trumpet; New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, director.

CS asked us to come along to this open rehearsal and provided complimentary tickets for the event.  Since all we had to do was to get up early enough to catch the 8:12 am train into the city, we readily agreed.

It was an enjoyable and fun way to spend half a morning to see how the concert is put together.  For the most part, the conductor went through an entire piece before working on specific segments.  Thus the audience got the chance to hear the pieces played without interruption.  (He did do a few restarts on the Requiem.)

The Playbill contains some interesting facts about the compositions that are worth repeating.  The Cantata (Praise God in every nation) does not call for a chorus, with the soprano being the only voice heard; a rarity for Bach.  And Bach usually didn’t designate his compositions as cantatas; this is one of the few exceptions.  The biblical account of Samson ends with Samson destroying the temple, killing himself and many others in the process.  Handel chose to end the oratorio (“long and intense,” per Playbill) with a hopeful aria and chorus (“Let the Bright Seraphim” and “Let Their Celestial Concerts All Unite.”)

Many know the strange and sad story behind Mozart’s Requiem.  Even though it was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach through an anonymous message, most listeners associate the Requiem with Mozart’s own death.  The reality was Mozart was busy with his other compositions until shortly before his death, so he probably didn’t think much about his own mortality much, except at the end.  Mozart never completed the mass, reaching the beginning of Lacrimosa (about half way.)  There have been many attempts at completing this Requiem, with varying degrees of legitimacy.  The edition used for these performances was completed by Robert D. Levin in 1993.  This is stated matter-of-factly in the Playbill, but I find it unbelievable that a version completed so late is considered the most Mozartean – even though Levin did draw on a lot of prior work.

From what we heard in the rehearsal, the concert would have sounded great.  Even though we were warned that the vocalists may dial back a bit to save their vocal chords, they all sounded great.  Miah Persson has major roles in all three pieces (well, she is the only vocalist in the first two), and she sang strongly and beautifully.  I have always enjoyed Stephanie Blythe’s singing, and today was no exception.  Both the tenor and the bass were great.  Most of the singing in the Requiem was done by the chorus, and they sang beautifully throughout, amazingly in some instances.  The trumpet provided delightful obbligato lines for the Bach and Handel pieces.  (The Playbill gives equal billing to all the soloists, since I thought Perssons did a lot more work, I put her in the headline.)

We heard Labadie in March 2012 conducting Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Quebec in Carnegie Hall in a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. I was just so-so with that performance.  This time was very different.  He was engaged, I suspect some performers may say a bit too engaged, including some remarks he made about the chorus that made me wonder if Flummerfelt would be defensive about.  He was always good-natured about it, though, saying “thank you very much” again and again.

Since Labadie is supposed to be a baroque and classical specialist, it is not surprising that he didn’t need the score for the 55-minute long Mozart Requiem.  What I found incredible was how he remembered all the places he wanted to work on after running through the piece once.  And he started from the end, no less.

I do wonder if I would find the actual concert emotionally uplifting.  During this open rehearsal my feelings were limited to admiring the skill and professionalism of the people involved.  A quick check of the Philharmonic website indicated that all three concerts were sold out.  Let’s be honest, given I am not particularly enthusiastic about Bach or Mozart (what heresy), and given my prior exposure to Labadie, this concert probably wouldn’t make it on my radar.

The rehearsal took longer than I expected, lasting until 12:30 pm.  Most of the “reworks” on the Requiem had to do with the chorus, but the soloists had to remain on stage for all that time.  They seemed good-natured about it though.  Since I couldn’t hear Labadie consistently (even though we were seated up front), I had little idea what specifics he was trying to accomplish; yet I felt it would be very disruptive and disrespectful to leave, so we all sat there until the end.  It costs $18 for an open rehearsal ticket, and you can get a very good seat for that price; it makes one wonder if these are not preferable to the actual concerts themselves.

I was looking for a New York Times review of the performance.  Evidently none has been published as of November 9.  One was published on Nov 12.  The reviewer liked the performance, and gave explained how the new score by Levin is superior to the edition completed by Mozart's pupil Franz Xaver Sussmayr.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Leila Josefowicz, violin. November 5, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Second Tier Box Rear (Box 20F, Seat 16, $0).

Suite from Ma Mere l’Oye (Mother Goose, 1908-10; orch. 1911) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Violin Concerto (2008-09) by Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958).
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 (1912-19) by Sibelius (1865-1957).

I got an E-club mailing from New York Philharmonic when I was in Asia and talked to Anne every now and then about going for those discount tickets.  By the time we decided to go, it was this past Sunday.  The code we were given didn’t work, so we gave up on the concert.  Anne met up with CS Monday and talked about it, and he managed to get us two complimentary tickets.  One reason why seats were available this close to the concert probably was because the program was repeated on five different days; tonight’s concert was quite well attended, not sure how many of them were free or discounted, though.  Anne’s seat and mine were at opposite sides of the Second Tier, I moved to an empty seat next to hers after the intermission.

The only piece I had heard before – several times - was the Ravel Mother Goose piece, and I blogged about those performances.  It is a good thing I didn’t read those reviews beforehand; they may have biased me into thinking this would be another so-so piece.  Perhaps it was the detailed notes in the Playbill, maybe I was paying more attention, or it might be simply a better performance.  I enjoyed the piece as I followed along its description in the Playbill.  The original work was written for two youngsters (the children that premiered it were aged 7 and 8), but the orchestrated version needed a good ensemble to perform properly, which New York Phil certainly did tonight.  The five movements of the Suite are: Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty; Tom Thumb; Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas; Conversations of Beauty and the Beast; and Apotheosis, The Enchanted Garden.

The New York Phil website and the Playbill have a lot to say about the Salonen violin concerto.  After listening to it, Anne was amazed that such a complex piece could be played from memory, I was simply amazed.

Of all the modern violin pieces (one by Dutilleux comes to mind), this certainly is much easier to appreciate and enjoy on the first hearing.  While I didn’t catch any singable tunes in the piece, it sounded very tonal.  And the speed was simply unbelievable in some places.  It certainly demands a lot from the performer, but only asks for a limited set of virtuosic skills from her.  Nothing to be sneered at: the double stops, interval jumps and harmonics were mesmerizing.  However, I didn’t catch a lot of spiccatos or left-hand pizzicatos.

Had it not been for the detailed notes provided by Salonen, I would have been quite lost.  The piece has four movements: Mirage, Pulse I, Pulse II, and Adieu.  Several interesting facts from the writeup: (i) the piece begins with the violin sounding as if the music had been going on for some time already; (ii) in Mirage, all movement stops on the note D, (iii) Something very Californian in all this; and (iv) I felt confused.  Many of Salonen’s compositions have been proven to be quite popular, and this will probably be one of them.  While the piece certainly has its distinctive characteristics, for some reason at times I felt I was listening to Philip Glass, on steroids.  I also heard Salonen’s piano concerto a few years back.  A review of that blog indicates I wasn’t as impressed by that piece, although there are many parallels to how I feel about the two concertos.

This is the first time I saw Leila Josefowicz play; Anne thought she is heard quite frequently on WQXR.  She certainly sounded amazing, with impeccable techniques, and was very into the piece, even this was the fifth and last performance of the series.  She looked very young from my seat in Tier 2 (she’s 36), and is quite popular among composers.  I wonder how she would sound playing a more “traditional” piece.  She played a short encore that – alas – called for similar techniques as the Salonen concerto.

Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony was written as a commission by the Finnish Government to mark the composer’s fiftieth birthday – just like Salonen’s piece was written when he turned 50 (roughly).  Perhaps the parallels are intentional?  Compared to other Sibelius pieces I know, this Symphony sounded downright sunny.  It was rather short at about 30 minutes, and is in three movements (i) Tempo molto moderato – Allegro moderato; (ii) Andante mosso – quasi allegretto; and (iii) Allegro molto – Misterioso. As with the other two pieces, the rendition was precise and crisp, and I enjoyed it very much.  On the other hand, I was suffering from considerable jet lag, having returned from Hong Kong the night before, slept only five or so hours last night, so I did lose my concentration a bit here or there.  Thus it was a good thing the Symphony ended on “six widely separated and powerful chords.”

When I started the drive in, I felt quite tired and wondered about the wisdom of going to this concert.  I am glad we went.  Traffic was light both ways, we got home by 10:30 pm.  And we found free parking on 65th!

Here is the New York Times review; it is very positive.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Lorin Maazel conductor. November 2, 2013.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall.  Balcony (Seat E64, HK$480.)

Siegfried Idyll by Wagner.
The Ring Without Words by Wagner (arr. Maazel.)

I stumbled onto this event earlier this week.  While having lunch with George and Mana Leung we talked about ½ price tickets for seniors, and they expressed some interest in coming.  So the ticket I got was for full price, and we also got four half-price tickets (the other two for Stephen and Ruth), which is really a good deal.  If you are into Wagner, that is.

After many years and multiple concerts, my appreciation for Wagner has increased considerably.  And I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see how Maazel is doing since he left New York Philharmonic several years ago – I think I missed the several times he returned.  Having just sang praises to Singapore Symphony and knocking the country as a cultural desert at the same time, I wanted to do a quick comparison also.

I wasn’t disappointed.  For the most part, anyway.

With a title like “Siegfried Idyll” I naturally thought the piece was excerpted from the Ring, particularly so as many scenes where Siegfried appears are rather idyllic.  And that is quite wrong.  Turns out Wagner had a son with the former Cosima van Bulow named Siegfried, and this piece was written to celebrate his birth.  When premiered, it was played on the staircase inside Wagner’s house.  That explained why the ticket had the notation “1st piece will be performed at Foyer” on it: the intent was to replicate that first performance.  It was written for an ensemble of thirteen instruments; and it didn’t quite work this evening.  I think the major reason is the foyer of the Cultural Center is cavernous, which would produce a sound effect very different from a much more intimate household setting.  There was no way to balance the strings (one player for each part) with the woodwinds and brasses.  Perhaps by putting the string players at the lower end of the staircase instead of the upper landing would give them some acoustic support; as it was the strings were often drowned out by the other instruments.  The piece itself sounded as one expect: soft and pleasant melodies, no climaxes to speak off (you don’t want to wake up the baby!), and more traditional harmony-wise.  If it was leitmotif based, I certainly didn’t get it.

One could also reasonably conclude the HKPO has gone overboard with being international.  Of the thirteen players, only the two violins and the viola were Chinese (Hong Kong or Mainland), the other ten were non-Asians.  Turns out most of the string players in the full orchestra were Asian, and the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections were split.  There were also three harps, but I couldn’t tell given where we sat.

After having seen the Ring cycle several times, I have a reasonably good grasp of the leitmotifs and the story.  And the Program Notes contains good synopses of the operas and description of the adaptation, so for me it was reasonably easy to stay on track – I still got lost every now and then.

I am sure I have heard this piece before, but couldn’t find a reference of it in my blog, so I am either mistaken, or I did hear it a long time ago.  In any case, I knew it was an “abridged Ring” in that the adaptation tells the story of the Ring.  Perhaps someone who knows the story would love it, I wasn’t sure how a first time Wagner listener would react.  I thought the music acquitted itself very well in that regard also.  It hangs together musically, and there is a narrative if you care to find it.

The orchestra is huge (around 100 musicians) with particularly large woodwind, brass, and percussion sections.  So it could be deafeningly loud sometimes.  Some good (bad?) examples are the Nibelungs forging on anvils, and the makeshift hammer blow when Fafner killed Fasolt.  They certainly performed well, most of the time.  Towards the end they seemed to have lost some concentration (understandable, but not quite excusable) but they got back on track at the end.  I found myself moved by the music, especially by some episodes such as Siegmund and Sieglinde meeting together, Brunnhilde talking to Wotan before her punishment, and the immolation scene with the constant timpani drum beat.

The audience certainly applauded enthusiastically and Maazel took several well-deserved bows.  At the last one he grabbed the Concertmaster’s hand, not to shake it, but to lead him and the orchestra offstage, which I thought was quite funny.

The snobbish in me didn’t think too many people would appreciate the performance.  The snobbish in me was proven correct:  I was disappointed at the number of empty seats.  The program was also played Friday, I wonder how that went.  I must admit Hong Kong still deserves its reputation as a cultural desert.

One minor thing about the program notes.  It bills the two pieces at 18 minutes and 70 minutes; in actuality they lasted just under 25 and 80 minutes respectively.

One realizes that an orchestra that can do Wagner well is only a small part of being able to put on an actual Ring cycle.  If I were the cultural minister of Hong Kong, I would want to take that up as a challenge.  Since I am not (I am not even sure such a position exists), I will just look at that possibility with some degree of hope and amusement.

And Maazel?  He looked the same as I remembered him, with his economical style of conducting.  He seemed to lean on the guard rail a bit more, and walked a little slower.  But he was as animated (not quite the right term) as before.  I thought he had an appropriate energy level for someone in his 70s: he is 83.  I have always been a fan.  I wish him well.