Sunday, January 26, 2014

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Nobuyuki Tsujii, piano. January 25, 2014.

Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Section Balcony (Seat M3, $35.)

Program – All Beethoven (1770-1827)
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (1807)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36 (1802)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, Emperor (1809)

Ever since we stopped subscribing to their concerts, we only go sporadically.  The last time we went was April 2012.  The reason we went today was because of the soloist, well-known for being a (joint) gold medalist at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition, and for being blind.  He was the second half of the program.

The overture was written for a play that debuted in 1802 and was dormant by the time Beethoven came around to write the music.  It was played once for that purpose, and has become a stand-alone piece, one seldom played at that.  Despite all these strikes against it, I enjoyed the short 8 minute piece.  Actually I enjoyed it so much that I was ready to revisit my decision to not renew my subscription to the orchestra’s concerts.

Well, the Beethoven symphony brought me back to earth.  The problem with Orpheus is not that it is a bad orchestra; sitting in the balcony, the sound actually is very good.  If I have to use an adjective to describe it, the sound is sweet.  Sweet, dependable, but unexciting.  Even though this is an even-numbered symphony – not that I am inclined to classify Beethoven’s symphonies that way – it doesn’t mean it is dull, slow, dragging, or gray.  Indeed the Playbill uses terms like fortissimo and pianissimo to describe the music but, alas, it didn’t come through this way.  The 32 minute work has four movements: Adagio molto – Allegro con brio, Larghetto, Scherzo: Allegro, and Allegro molto.

After a short intermission, we came to the main event.  It didn’t disappoint.

I still remember walking in Victoria Park, Hong Kong, listening to the local classical station, when the announcement came on that the year’s Van Cliburn competition had two gold medalists, and that one of them was a blind pianist.  I tend not to be very “up” with this sort of things, but this somehow gets stuck in my mind.

It is interesting that it is more than 4 years later that we have an opportunity to hear Tsujii.  And the balcony of Carnegie Hall is filled with Asians (perhaps 80%, and I venture to guess most are Japanese.)  At intermission I also noticed some lady wearing a formal Japanese gown.  I guess that is to be expected.  Many Chinese show up at Lang Lang recitals, for instance.

Tsujii was captivating from the very start.  It is easy to enjoy the Emperor Concerto, more so when it is played well, and even more so when the soloist is someone who overcame great odds to get to this level of virtuosity.

For this piece the balance between the soloist and the orchestra was just right, and they put in a performance with a wide dynamic and emotional range.  The three movements are Allegro, Adagio un poco mosso – Rondo: Allegro.

One can’t help but wonder how someone born blind can become a world-class performer.  I am sure there are many stories about him that I can read up.  I did notice he calibrated where he was physically by touching the right side of the keyboard.  In some sense working with Orpheus, an orchestra without a conductor, works well.

The lady sitting in front of me liked to lean forward and thus blocked my view of the pianist.  I can thus confidently say that no allowance was needed for his blindness.  That he could overcome it is simply inspirational.

He played two encore pieces, one of them with the orchestra.  They are both familiar tunes but I don’t remember their titles; guessing wrong would be too embarrassing.

It started to snow when we left our house.  We found off-street parking that cost us $13.50, and had dinner at Szechuan Gourmet on 56th.  The return trip also took less than an hour.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Lisa Batiashvili, violin. January 14, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat AA11, $44.)

Fidelio Overture, Op. 72 (1814) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 99 (1947-48) by Shostakovich (1906-75).
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1799-1800) by Beethoven.
An American in Paris (1928) by Gershwin (1898-1937).

This is an interesting program.  Three of the pieces are “easy,” popular and enjoyable; the other is seldom programmed, perhaps because it is difficult to pull off.

First on the Beethoven overture.  There are multiple versions of the one opera by Beethoven and the overture that accompanies it.  The opera Leonore was first premiered in 1805, and was adapted in 1806: both versions were not well-received.  The version called Fidelio was introduced in 1814 and was a hit.  The overtures that accompanied these different versions are called Leonore No. 1, No. 3, and Fidelio.  Making things more interesting is the Fidelio overture is in the key of E major while the Leonores are in C major.

All that may be interesting fodder for musicologists and annotators.  For the typical concert-goer, this is just a delightful way to start an evening.  Even though this was the last performance in this 4-concert series, the piece sounded fresh, crisp, and – I’m sure – many in the audience were ready to hum along.

Any attempt to do that was quashed a few minutes into Shostakovich’s violin concerto.  The concerto started slowly, not that anyone expects the concerto to follow any standard tempo marking.  I was struck by how the solo violin worked so well with the large orchestra.  While there are some difficult double-stop passages in this Nocturne: Moderato movement, there is none of the fireworks that I have come to associate with Shostakovich’s cello and piano concertos.

Concern that there was going to be no fireworks is dispelled soon into the second movement, Scherzo: Allegro.  The piece then moved into a rather structured Passacaglia: Andante movement, followed by a cadenza that was much more challenging to play than it sounded.  The violinist has to jump all over the place, her intonation tested by the long double stop and octave passages.  She is given some rest at the beginning of the fourth movement (Burlesque: Allegro con brio – Presto) before launching into more of the same.  (The Playbill says an eight-measure respite, it felt longer.) The audience burst into applause at the conclusion of the concerto, and Batiashvili came out for several curtain calls.

The Playbill lists some interesting facts about this concerto.  It was dedicated to and premiered by David Oistrakh who was blamed by many as the cause of the delay of its publication (in 1956.)  Others thought Oistrakh provided considerable advice to Shostakovich and rightfully earned the honor of being the dedicatee.  The Playbill also calls Op. 99 (chronologically correct for the publication date) the “universal” identification; but in Wikipedia (at least) the number is 77.  The concerto was written during the time Shostakovich was condemned by the official Russian music establishment, but published after Stalin’s death.  Since I can’t really tell what patriotic music sounds like, I can’t tell if this piece would have met with official approval.  Interestingly, I am not sure the Program Annotator wants to commit, either.  One more tidbit: Oistrakh premiered this in the US with the New York Philharmonic.

The Annotator chose not to say a lot about the piece itself.  I, on the other hand, am not able to say much beyond a few superficial observations.  I do agree with the statement that both the solo and orchestra parts are exciting in their own right.  (In going over my blogs, I actually had a bit to say when I heard it performed by Christan Tetzlaff a few years ago; given how I wrote about it, a possibly better performance.) What I find surprising was how – as I remember them – the piano (the one or two I have heard), violin, and cello concertos all have different characteristics.  I recall the piano concerto(s?) began with virtuosic passages by the soloist straight away, and the cello concerto had this haunting 4-note theme that was referenced throughout the composition.

I didn’t include this concert as part of this season’s subscription and only reluctantly exchanged another for it because of a recent trip.  One of the reasons was Batiashvili never impressed me as a top-tiered soloist.  I am glad we went this time.  The Playbill says little about Batiashvili.  Wikipedia says she plays a Stradivarius on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation, and that she won the Sibelius Competition at age 16 (Playbill says she competed in it.)  We may have a modest personality here.  She was born in 1979.

Beethoven’s First Symphony, radical for its time, sounded downright calm in contrast.  An anchor piece becomes a breather after Shostakovich. It was nice to be able to sit back and enjoy a very pleasant performance by a great orchestra.

The inclusion of An American in Paris in this program puzzles me.  While quite familiar with some of the tunes, I had never heard a live performance before.  And I didn’t know that this was a tone poem, with a simple program: An American, getting a bit drunk, gets the blues; he eventually sobers up and wanders about Paris, listening to its triumphant street noises.  Well, I don’t particularly hear the story in that order, although the elements are all there.  The piece started at such a fast tempo that I thought Gilbert wanted to get it over with quickly.  It still took close to 20 minutes, much longer than the advertised 17.

A nice conclusion to the evening’s exhilarating ride.  The New York Times reviewer expresses about the same sentiments I do, including the remark that the program "doesn't mesh at all."  She uses much more refined language, though.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Strauss Jr’s Die Fledermaus. January 4, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony (Seat B101, $100.50.)

Story.  Dr. Falke who was humiliated when his friends played a trick on him (and thus got the nickname “The Bat”) tries to get even with his tormenters by staging a New Year’s Eve party at Prince Orlofsky’s villa.  The people going to the party include Adele the chambermaid and her sister Ida the actress; Rosalinde disguised as a Hungarian countess; her philandering husband Gabriel von Eisenstein who is about to be jailed for striking a police officer, he poses as a Frenchman; the jailer Frank also goes disguised as a Frenchman, in this case as a theatrical producer.  Thrown into the plot is Alfred who is in love with Rosalinde.  He is with her when Frank visits her house to take Gabriel to jail; to protect her good name, Alfred claims to be Gabriel and is hauled off to jail.  During the party various comical vignettes take place, including von Eisenstein trying to seduce his own disguised wife, but at the end everything turns out fine and the partygoers break out into a song.  Prince Orlofsky, who often fails to find something funny, thinks this is hysterical and breaks into laughter.

Conductor – Adam Fischer; Alfred – Michael Fabiano, Adele – Jane Archibald, Rosalinde – Susana Phillips, Gabriel von Eisenstein – Christopher Maltman, Dr. Blind – Mark Schowalther, Dr. Falke – Paulo Szot, Frank – Patrick Carfizzi, Ida – Betsy Wolfe, Prince Orlofsky – Anthony Roth Costanzo, Ivan – Jason Simon, Frosch – Danny Burstein.

For some reason I had thought this was a rather short opera (it is billed as an operetta, actually), so I was surprised to see a slip in the Playbill stating there would be two intermissions.  Instead of ending at 10:30 pm as I expected, the show ended at close to midnight.  The three acts are 50, 55, and 35 minutes long – adding to about 2 ½ hours.  I am quite sure the two intermissions were extended because there were problems with the sets.  The curtain had trouble coming down after the first act.

This is a new production, and the premiere was on New Year’s Eve.  The sets are mostly traditional and realistic, and quite elaborate.  Act 1 takes place in Eisenstein’s apartment, which is decorated with two large Klimt-like paintings, and red-color themed.  Act 2 is a ballroom that is also elaborately appointed.  Act 3 happens at the jail, the set comprises of a living area with bars surrounding it.

The overture certainly met and raised my expectations.  I know a lot of the tunes, but didn’t know that they all came from the same source.  Too much waltz can be monotonous (think “The Blue Danube” with all its repeats), but the Met Orchestra put in a crisp, light-hearted, and delightful performance.  The conductor Fischer is appropriately Hungarian; he is the brother of the (to me) more well-known Ivan Fischer.

This lightness continues to come through during the entire opera, although the Playbill says some solos are vocally challenging.  And the choreography and costume design are clever and pleasant – for instance, the “clock” theme worn by the dancers to illustrate the New Year.

Except for a weak spot here or there, the singing was uniformly excellent.  Indeed the interleaving of the waltzes into the arias makes for very pleasant sounding music.

However, both Anne and I are disappointed by the overall experience, probably because our expectations were too high.

The first problem is that the opera’s dialog and lyrics are all in English.  While I am sure the writers Douglas Carter Beane (dialog) and Jeremy Sams (lyrics) are very capable, I am also sure they cannot replicate fully the synergy between Strauss and the original writers (Carl Haffner and Richard Genee.)  And one also wonders if the story has been rewritten – after all, the original libretto didn’t specify New Year’s Eve as the date, and 1899 was the year Strauss died (so it was unlikely he had that year in mind when he wrote the opera.)  The rewrite is somewhat mitigated by the fact that English is a Germanic language and thus have similar sounds; and the plus is that I didn’t have to look at the subtitles that much.  Not enough to overcome my misgivings, though.

The second problem is the amount of spoken dialog seems to overwhelm the amount of singing.  That is at least how it felt.  Oftentimes I thought I was in a play with some singing thrown in.  This is particularly acute when Frosch (a non-singing role) began Act 3 with a long monologue, embarrassing long as far as I am concerned.

The third problem is the comedy by-and-large didn’t work for me.  In general I don’t enjoy comedies, in particular I find slapstick humor crude and screwball humor an intellectual insult.  Alas, that is how I feel about the plot.

I do wonder if the crudeness is how the current artistic team views what an update to the opera should be, or if they tried to replicate the decadence of Vienna at that time.  There is this interesting incongruence between how people acted and the elegant backdrop; let us be charitable and call that intentional.

In Act 2 there is a countdown to the New Year that was quite well done.  I wonder if they delayed the start for an hour so it could occur at midnight.  That would have been nice.

The New York Times reviewer manages to pan the show while praising it as something suitable for a New Year celebration, describing the lines as “often worthy of groans more than giggles,” and that some of the jokes would be considered “already musty back in 1899.”  The reviewer also says quite a bit of additional dialog was added by the new team, and doesn’t think it is necessary.  I particular appreciate his description of Act 3: “so much explanatory dialog …musical numbers feel like oases in an expansive desert of talk.”

We found off-street parking on the 69th, had dinner at the Chinese place on 72nd again.  Traffic was not a problem either way.  I think this is the first time it took less than an hour either way.