Saturday, March 29, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Manfred Honeck, conductor. March 28, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  First Tier Center (Seat CC115, $56.)

Orion (1979) by Claude Vivier (1948-83).
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1887-94; ed. Nowak, 1951) by Bruckner (1824-96).

It is not easy when you start performing a program knowing most of your audience is disappointed, and that’s probably how Honeck felt when he started the series.  I am sure I was among the many that got these tickets anticipating a great experience: what could go wrong with Dudamel conducting a Bruckner symphony?  Well, the conductor can come down with the flu and withdraw!  Indeed I got an email informing me of the substitution about a week ago.  And I was so looking forward to seeing how the New York Philharmonic would fare under Dudamel.

The choice of the first piece is quite interesting, especially in light of the LA Phil program we heard a couple of weeks ago.  Vivier was an openly gay Quebecois who was murdered soon after moving to Paris.  There is much speculation about the circumstances of the tragedy, including the possibility that he orchestrated his own murder.  (All this from the Playbill.)  This leads one to wonder if Dudamel picked the New York programs with the subject of homosexuality specifically in mind.

All that aside, the 14-minute Orion is quite interesting.  Vivier provided a description of the six sections of the piece: statement of the melody, first development of the melody laid upon itself, second development, meditation on the melody, remembrance of the melody, and finally the melody in two intervals.  Even though I am not sure what the phrases “laid upon itself” and “in two intervals” mean (and the Playbill calls the description desultory anyway), it is at least consistent with my perception that the piece has a rather simple structure.

And it was actually one of those modern pieces that I enjoyed on my first hearing.  As with many modern pieces, a lot of different percussion instruments (four percussionists) were used; curiously the timpani was (were?) absent.  It is always fun trying to locate where a particular sound comes from, so it kept us quite busy.  One instrument that was not listed was the human voice: one of the percussionists actually had to sing out a two-note motif a couple of times.  While the melody isn’t a tune you would walk away humming to yourself, it was interesting how it got woven into the piece multiple times.  How this piece is inspired by the constellation Orion, however, is still a mystery.

The Playbill says this Bruckner piece was last performed by the NY Philharmonic on November 8, 2008, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.  A review of my postings indicates that we actually attended that concert; it also says I ended up scratching my head quite a bit afterwards.  It bears repeating that this was Bruckner’s last symphony, and he died while working on the finale of this composition.  Most performances now utilize the three completed movements and end on the “unconventional” Adagio third movement.

March 2014 is more than five years later, and I have heard many Bruckners in the meantime, and have learned to appreciate him a bit more.  Nonetheless, my impression was that his music can get very loud, and he was a great fan of brass instruments.  Nothing wrong with that, and that was how I expected Dudamel to deliver it.

Honeck put in a controlled and nuanced performance.  At no time could the orchestra be considered loud or out of control as he led the group on a long journey (I think the first movement is close to 30 minutes.)  Having visited Vienna and Upper Austria a couple of years ago, I even managed to correlate a bit of what I heard with the area’s environs.

The piece called for many “solo” passages from different parts of the orchestra, and afterwards Honeck made it a point to shake hands with players from the different sections, including the co-acting principals of the basses.  That was certainly a first.

There were a lot of empty seats; many people no doubt decided to not show up because of the change of conductors.  Also, the applause was at best lukewarm and polite, although from all indications Honeck was appreciative of the audience.  While no doubt Dudamel would have done a great job - and I wish he had been the one conducting – this to me confirms many New York concert-goers being attracted by headliners rather than the music.  Too bad they missed out on a good program.

Listening to radio traffic reports, we were expecting traffic jams along the way.  It was Friday evening, after all.  To our surprise, we had no problem driving in, and there was a lot of parking available around Lincoln Center.  It had been a while since we ate at Empire Szechuan, and to my chagrin they took out one of my favorite dishes (chicken/shrimp combo.)

The New York Times review is enthusiastic.  It draws some interesting parallels between Orion and the Ninth Symphony.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Jeffrey Kahane, Conductor and Piano. March 20, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat DD107, $40.)

Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Symphony No. 2 (1933-34) by Kurt Weill (1900-50).
Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra (1925) by Gershwin (1898-1937).

We couldn’t go to the concert we had tickets for this coming Saturday, so we exchanged one ticket for tonight’s concert, and I went by myself.

There are quite a few interesting aspects to the concert program.  First, Kahane is both the soloist and the conductor.  The most recent performance where the soloist also conducted I saw was in Tonhalle a couple of years back, with the conductor playing the recorder.  Of course Orpheus does it without a conductor at all.  The thing about this concert though, is neither of the piano pieces is particularly easy to pull off.  Second, the three works were composed within ten years of one another.  Ravel was French, Weill German, and Gershwin American.  There is some level of cross-pollinatio: Ravel traveled to the US and spent some time with Gershwin before writing his piano concerto, Weill started the symphony in Germany and finished that in France, and Gershwin had visited France recently.  Further, Ravel is a classical composer (word “classical” used very liberally), Weill is known for his work on Broadway, and my exposure to Gershwin has more been in his Broadway and jazz material.  This program perhaps can elucidate the similarities and distinctions among the different genres.  If I were to write a headline for the program, it would be “blurring boundaries between classical, pop, opera, and Broadway.”  From reading the New York Times review, I was reminded that all three pieces were brought into the New York Philharmonic repertoire by Bruno Walter.

If I get the opportunity to listen to the music multiple times, I may be able to conclude something insightful out of the program.  Since I only listened to the program once, I can’t say anything nearly as profound as the possibilities delineated in the previous paragraph.  As a concert, however, my opinion is mixed: there are some very enjoyable moments, there are some that are just so-so.

I have heard the Ravel piano concerto performed several times before (most recently in December, 2013).  Evidently not enough as it all sounded quite new to me.  This was a delightful performance, particularly when it comes to the first and last movements (Allegramente; Presto).  It was a showcase for the pianist’s virtuosity, and has many passages that delight.  Kahane did them well.  I did find the second movement (Adagio assai) a bit on the rigid side (some may call it “solid.”)  To the extent I remember the prior performances, this was a lot better.

It should be no surprise that neither “no conductor” nor “soloist as conductor” catches my fancy.  My problem with the former is simple: I haven’t seen it pulled off except for the simplest of pieces (unfortunately Orpheus is the example.)  The issue with the latter is different.  I think of a concerto as a dialog between the soloist and the orchestra, thus when the soloist also conducts we technically have a monolog.  For most people (myself included) the difference may be minimal, just like someone using dubbing techniques to play multiple tracks in a recording, but you will never go away with the feeling that you just witnessed two great performers working harmoniously together.

Logistically there are issues also.  First the placement of the piano is different.  The audience sees the soloist’s back and thus don’t get to see his fingers flying over the keyboard.  People want to sit on the left side of the hall for a reason.  The soloist stands up every now and then, which is somewhat distracting.  I have no idea how he manages to turn the page (more fascination than a problem.)  I also wonder not being on a podium how folks in the back get to see him over the piano.

Before the start of the Weill piece, Kahane talked a little bit about his connection with the piece and the composer.  Weill was Jewish and eventually left Germany to come to the United States (via France.)  The speech included terms like distant relative, grandmother, emigration to America, Krystallnacht, Nazi’s, and censorship, but I had some problem understanding what Kahane’s connection really is.  Or rather, the connection is so tenuous that it doesn’t justify the number of sentences used to describe it.  What I did get, though, was Weill’s music was banned by the Nazi’s, and Kahane conducted it with the Hamburg Symphony recently.  Also, while the New York Philharmonic first performed this piece soon after its world premiere, it has not done it since until this concert.

Kahane made another remark that really raised my expectations.  It went something like “1933, Third Reich, need I say more?”

Being a baby-boomer kid growing up in Hong Kong, I was more sensitive to the Asian side of the conflict (e.g., how the Chinese fared under Japanese occupation.)  So I may not hear the anguish in Weill’s music, if there is any.  What I heard instead was a “modern” composer with a traditional vocabulary.  It may be unfair to compare Weill with Lowell Liebermann (whose work we heard played by the NJSO, also in December), but I get a similar feeling after listening to this.

Sure, this work feels more substantial, in part because it employs a full orchestra, and in part due to its length (about 28 minutes per Playbill.)  It sounded very tonal, with so many nice solos and duets thrown in that I am tempted to call it a “Concerto for Orchestra.”  Overall, however, the word “pedestrian” comes to mind, even considering the exciting passages that show up time to time.  The Program Annotator calls the music somber and acerbic.  I agree with “somber” but probably have a different understanding of what the word “acerbic” means.  It doesn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to place this music in a film about the horrors of the period. The three movements are: Sostenuto – Allegro molto; Largo; and Allegro vivace. 

The word “jazz” conjures up Duke Wellington, interminably long phrases, soft drumsets, and cigar smoke.  Some must consider it heresy that I don’t get any of that.  I do make an exception when it comes to George Gershwin.  I enjoy his music – classical, jazz, pop, Broadway – very much.

Gershwin wrote this piano concerto when he was 27, a few years before An American in Paris, and soon after Rhapsody in Blue.  Playbill says Gershwin set out to prove to his critics that he could do absolute music, but had to learn orchestration to complete this concerto.  Well, he sure was a fast learner as far as orchestration is concerned, even though he didn’t employ many of the “newer” instruments that are favorites of, say, Strauss. Moreover, the sound is still distinctly jazz and blues.  Overall this is a delightful piece that keeps reminding me of An American in Paris: not sure if it is the blueness or the actual tunes.  There are passages that have no trace of jazz, but the music eventually wanders back to the distinct Gershwin style.  The paraphrase “You can put the classical into Gershwin but you can’t take the jazz out of him” comes to mind.  It was a delightful 30 minutes.  The concerto’s three movements are (i) Allegro; (ii) Adagio: Andante con moto; and (iii) Allegro agitato.

Had my initial objective been simply to listen and to enjoy, it would have been by-an-large fulfilled.   Whatever made me think the overall program would be more than that tempered the enjoyment with questions and unmet expectations.  My own doing? Or were they realistic expectations?  I am sure my remarks about soloist as conductor will still be there regardless.

The roster of the New York Philharmonic shows some turmoil in the bass section: evidently the principal left.  Also, to show they really mean business, now a recording of Whoopi Goldberg tells the audience to silence their phones.  And she felt the need to identify herself.

The New York Times review is concentrated on the Weill piece.  I can understand how listening to something can affect one’s reaction to a subsequent piece (and said as much in my blog about a recent LA Philharmonic program.)  Evidently for this reviewer it doesn’t require time travel to have a later event affect how a prior event was perceived.

I can’t imagine my luck again in finding off-street parking.  Thursday perhaps is a good day to drive into the Lincoln Center area.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Berg’s Wozzeck. March 17, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Family Circle (Seat E228, $32.50).

Story.  Wozzeck is a soldier who has a child with his girlfriend Marie.  Marie gives in to the advances of the Drum Major.  The two earrings given to Marie by the Drum Major makes Wozzeck suspicious, and the suspicion is exacerbated by the mocking of the Captain and the Doctor.  Eventually Wozzeck kills Marie with his knife.  He tries to clean up by cleaning the knife in the lake, eventually walking so deep that he drowns.  The opera ends with the child singing and playing.

Conductor – James Levine.  Wozzeck – Thomas Hampson, Marie – Deborah Voigt, Drum Major – Simon O’Neill, Captain – Peter Hoare, Doctor – Clive Bayley.

I am quite sure I had tickets to this opera for a prior season but couldn’t go because of schedule conflict.  In any case, we didn’t plan on going to this one either.  A few things changed my mind.  First, I find myself with some idle time with Anne in Jersey City.  I also read in this month’s Playbill an interview with James Levine, who uses phrases such as “audience … unable to shake it off for a long time” to describe the experience.  I am sure I don’t need to be haunted by a disturbing opera, but curiosity finally got the better of me, and I bought a Family Circle ticket yesterday after attending the LA Philharmonic concert.

The Playbill notes certainly adds to the intrigue, saying that some words are direct quotes from the real-life protagonist Woyzeck.  The notes also talks about the formal structure of the music, and contains a description of each of the three acts and the five scenes of each act.  This order supposedly stands in contrast with Wozzeck’s subjective fate.  The real-life Woyzeck tried to plead insanity, was found guilty nonetheless, and eventually executed.

Sometimes I think the Met staff goes overboard in hyping a particular opera, especially when the opera is a weak one.  Either the emperor has no clothes, or I am missing the whole point here.

One of the main haunting themes is supposedly how the little people (Wozzeck and Marie) don’t matter.  This is to be illustrated by how similar the end scene looks like the beginning scene: it is as if nothing has happened.  The fact is other than for the individuals themselves, things indeed do not matter for most people.  How many people leave lasting impact except on people that are very close to them?  The opera perhaps drives home the point with the child acting as if nothing ever happened.  But I am quite sure that is not what happened in the real-life story.

The other theme is how the elite look at themselves as being superior to the pedestrian.  My reaction is a shrug of my shoulders.  There is nothing special about that; it is still happening today.  We (the royal we) are always tempted to feel superior to those below us.  Human nature was that way before Wozzeck and Marie, and will continue to be that way after them.  And whether Wozzeck mattered or not isn’t determined by the Captain or the Doctor, but rather by his own views and actions.

There is nothing wrong with exploiting these themes and emotions in a story.  That’s what makes the arts immortal, whether it is a Shakespearean tragedy or a Wagnerian legend.  My point is this opera is just another one of those.  Not a tear jerker, not a thought-provoker, but simply a reflection of some aspects of human nature and the insignificance of life.

As I was watching it, I kept comparing it with Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which I saw last year in Oslo.  They are both dark operas written by modern composers (actually Britten’s was much later,) they are both relatively short (this one is about 1 ½ hours), and both in the main utilize a small cast.  Wozzeck does have scenes with choruses, but they total perhaps 15 minutes.  Without referring to my notes, I remember Britten’s music characterized by “pedal points” in the voice and music in the small orchestra.  If Wozzeck were a classical opera, I would say there are a lot of recitative passages: it sounds like dialog, but the pitches change.  One major difference is we heard Britten in a small room while Wozzeck is performed in the cavernous Met auditorium.  Also the full orchestra was employed in this instance.

The Playbill has considerable information on the music.  It describes the vocal writing as ranging “from pure speech to declaimed speech with musical inflections to melodic singing.”  (I guess melody is in the ear of the listener.)  Also, “motifs … are often fragments of lines or even rhymes.”  Regardless, I had to tell myself several times that I was watching an opera instead of a play.  I have heard Berg’s music a couple of time before, and it always leaves me scratching my head a little.  Today is no exception, and I wonder if there is hope that this will improve as my exposure increases.

Most principals’ voices carried well into the Family Circle section.  Voigt actually did very well today.  I am disappointed at Thomas Hampson though.  I heard him in Thais and enjoyed his singing very much; today he sounded weak.

As to Levine, he actually conducted quite energetically and there was a commensurate urgency and poignancy to the sound.  The applause at curtain call was quite warm, and I hope provides affirmation that the audience wishes him well.

The ticket cost me $32.50.  I never imagine I would say I am glad I didn’t get a higher priced ticket.  We will find out if I have nightmares tonight.

The New York Times has two reviews of this series.  The first one, on opening night, contains a lot of details about the opera and comments on nearly every singer.  It also reports that Hampson had bronchitis and the role of Wozzeck was sung by Mattias Goerne, who evidently is an acclaimed Wozzeck.  Hampson came back a week later (March 14) and the reviewer was pleased with his performance.  What is surprising is that the reviewer actually saw this twice!  Also, this may explain the weakness of his voice.

I stopped by Jersey City before driving to New York, found off street parking on 70th, and got home at 10:30 pm.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Los Angeles Philharmonic – Gustavo Dudamel, conductor. March 16, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat GG102, $83.50.)

Symphony No. 1 (1988) by John Corigliano (b. 1938).
Symphony No. 5 in E minor (1888) by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

The first time I heard Dudamel live was quite a few years ago.  I remember saying to myself sometimes a hype is well-deserved.  In the intervening years, I have had a couple of opportunities to hear him conduct (Vienna Philharmonic and Yo-yo Ma come to mind) and have great memories with his performances.  Given the bland encounter with NJSO last night, I was quite looking forward to have my enthusiasm for live concerts restored.  And I wasn’t disappointed.

The program bears some comment.  First the two pieces are written exactly 100 years apart.  Indeed in the Playbill there is a chart comparing the “significant” events in those years.  A good concept but the entries aren’t particularly insightful.  To me the more interesting is both pieces connote some aspects of homosexuality.  In Tchaikovsky’s case it is the composer himself; the Playbill makes it very clear that Corigliano’s composition is rage towards AIDS and memorial to his fallen friends.  In 1988 AIDS was rampant in the gay community, and being diagnosed with it was tantamount to getting a death sentence.

And there was a lot of rage and sadness in this 40 minute work.  The markings for the four movements tell most of the story: (1) Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance; (2) Tarantella; (3) Chaconne: Giulio’s Song; and (4) Epilogue.  The Playbill notes has a short but good description of the movements, so I will just record a few aspects that particularly stuck in my mind.  This symphony employs many different instruments as befits a contemporary composition: I counted three sets of church bells, a mandolin (didn’t catch it playing, though), and a whistle.  The use of the note A is much more effective than the notes led me to think, working as haunting bookends at the beginning and the end, and as punctuation several times in the piece.  The effect of the “off-stage” piano (we were sure it was at the rear right of the platform as seen by the audience) was eerie and surreal.  It was playing the familiar Albeniz Tango against the atonal music of the orchestra.  To the extent the orchestra music had a key, the Tango’s key is slightly off to be disturbing.  There was no pause between the last two movements, and the Epilogue is generally a recap of the first three movements.

The adjectives “dynamic” and “vibrant” are often used in association with Dudamel.  Whatever image those words conjure up, he was downright subdued today (understand “subdued” is a relative term.)  His feet barely left the platform, and there was no bar on the conductor’s podium to prevent him from falling off.  But I can’t imagine a better performance to be elicited from the orchestra.  There were a few instances that he counted out the number of measures by extending successive fingers on his left hand.  I do wonder whether that was necessary, it is not a percussionist having to wait 127 measures before hitting the next note, and the rhythm of the music was quite pronounced.  Also, his hair is cut shorter, and (alas) he looks more mature than his age (all of 33.)

I remember Corigliano’s name from a prior concert but didn’t remember what piece I heard.  A check of my blog confirmed that it was the Red Violin, with Joshua Bell playing.  I liked that piece too.  Corigliano is about 75 and still teaches at Julliard and CUNY.  He looked quite young as he came out for a bow.

The two most recent Tchaikovsky symphonies I heard were the fifth conducted by Blomstedt and the sixth conducted by Gilbert.  I remember enjoying both immensely, although I gave the nod to Gilbert and his more controlled interpretation instead of letting the orchestra run wild.

Another thought that occurred to me was it would be difficult to do better than the top of the program.  That turned out to be mostly true even as Dudamel took the music on a wild ride that was quite exhilarating.  Actually it started a bit tentatively, but by the end the gallop was at full speed.

While the Playbill doesn’t dwelve much into the “psychology” of the music, prior encounters told me this was about Fate (called Providence by the current annotator.)  This time I didn’t mind at all that Fate knocking on the door multiple times, or that many other themes were used over and over again.  It is simply a great symphony to enjoy.

Starting with a complex and highly emotional piece may have altered the perception of the second piece.  Today the Fifth was quite easy to understand and follow, and it was not nearly as dark as it supposed to be.  Actually it sounded downright sunny, even with this preponderance of minor key passages.

During the year (2001-2002) I lived in the LA area, I went to Dorothy Chandler Hall quite often to listen to the LA Philharmonic.  The music director was Esa-Pekka Salonen.  I don’t remember enjoying the concerts this much.

We rushed out of Avery Fisher after a couple of curtain calls because we wanted to get back to Jersey City quickly.  We heard an encore being played as we got to the foyer area.

Dudamel will be conducting the New York Philharmonic next Friday.  We have tickets to that series, it would be interesting to see how that works out.  Bruckner’s Ninth is on the program.

New Jersey Symphony – Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor; Hilary Hahn, violin. March 15, 2014.

Prudential Hall, NJPAC, Newark.  Tier 2 (Seat A149, $29.)

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (1878) by Brahms (1833-1897).
Giro (1981, rev. 1997) by Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958).
The Firebird Suite (1945) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Let’s get to the bottom line.  A mediocre performance by a mediocre orchestra led by a mediocre conductor; even the headliner soloist couldn’t manage to bring any level of excitement to the evening.

And this is how my hope that the New Jersey Symphony has arrived into the big leagues was dashed.  Is it the acoustics?  Is it the dynamics?  Is it the intonation?  Is it the precision?  I honestly cannot haggle with any specific aspect of the evening, but a great performance is more than just getting things right, it is about being able to take the audience on a ride, whether it is one to marvel at the virtuosity of a soloist, or one to challenge one’s sense of tonality and harmony, or one through a mythical land of fantasy animals.  The performance failed on all counts.

After the last NJSO concert we attended, I steeled myself to give my “home team” another chance.  It should be easy with Hilary Hahn playing a concert favorite, right?  Things felt lackluster right at the start.  The Brahms violin concerto eventually calls for great speed from the soloist, so a comparatively slow-sounding start is to be expected.  However, this slow didn’t feel anticipatory, as it should, but rather felt like the result of someone dragging the orchestra to prevent it from going forward.  (The Chinese has a saying, “trying to lead a cow up a tree.”)  Hilary Hahn’s performance was technically flawless, although the sound was on the weak side.  Brahms when done well can take you on an emotional ride. That didn’t happen at all tonight.  I was left with admiring Hahn for her impeccable intonation and clean deliverance of the difficult passages.  Nothing to sneer at, but one expects that much more from a world-class performer.  She played an encore which was very enjoyable.  (I am quite sure it is one of Bach’s Partita movements.)

This longish concerto took up the first half of the program (total length about 40 minutes; the three movements are Allegro non troppo, Adagio, and Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace.) Hahn did some record signing during intermission; she has quite a few fans.

Salonen’s music is usually quite accessible for the modern concert-goer, and this is no exception.  The piece was first written when he was in his 20s, although he revised it substantially about 15 years later.  The Program Notes describes it as “a symphonic poem along the lines of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.  My problem is I forgot that the order of the program for the evening was changed, so my mind was trying to process why Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite sounded so foreign to me.  I must admit even if I had realized at the get-go that this is Salonen, I would still be scratching my head.  To add insult to injury, I am sure I will claim I haven’t heard it before the next time I hear it.

The 1945 edition of Firebird is quite long at about 30 minutes.  In addition to the more familiar excerpts from the ballet, Stravinsky added some connecting music to the movements and called them “pantomimes.”  The program lists the following sections: Introduction and Dance of the Firebird, Pantomime I, Pas de deux, Pantomime II, Dance of the Princesses, Pantomime III, The Princesses’ Khorovod, Infernal Dance of King Kastchei, Berceuse, Finale.  As I said at the beginning, I didn’t feel like I was being taken into a land of fantasy at all.  Nonetheless, it is pleasant music, but without doing prior homework to remind myself what the movements are about, it doesn’t go much beyond that. 

How about the conductor?  I was telling myself he looked very good and energetic for an 80-year old.  A web search tells me that he is 66.  This somehow is congruent with how I feel the entire evening.

If I want to be detailed in this report, I should point out some bright spots in the evening, such as the nice oboe passages and a rather energetic third movement in the Brahms concerto.  But these moments are too few and far between to have any real impact on the overall evening.

Traffic around NJPAC is always busy, but we allowed ourselves a lot of time to get there.  Parking costs $16, but is just across the street.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Bellini’s La Sonnambula. March 14, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony (Seat B4, $87.50.)

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor – Marco Armiliato.  Amina – Diana Damrau, Elvino – Javier Camerena, Lisa – Rachelle Durkin, Alessio – Jordan Bisch, Teresa – Elisabeth Bishop, Count Rodolfo – Michele Pertusi.

I saw this opera several years back in Australia.  Other than finding it quite enjoyable, I don’t remember much else about it.  I bought tickets to this show because I had to return one ticket (Prince Igor) and decided to get two tickets for this opera – the Met’s rather liberal ticket exchange policy ends up generating more revenue for itself.

There is not much to the story, which is billed as semi-serious.  For most people this is a comedy with some drama thrown in.  On the other hand, the music is great, and the two lead singers were simply superb.

First, some remarks about the staging.  The setting as written by Bellini is Switzerland.  That is what I saw in Sydney.  The sets were not particularly impressive there, and quite dim as – I guess – sleepwalking is often done at night.  Here the producer Mary Zimmerman decides to mix things up a little bit.  What we have is the rehearsal of the cast inside a studio, and some deliberate confusion of what is real-life and what is being rehearsed.   I don’t know if it is possible to distinguish the two aspects, and I decided not to try after reading the synopsis.

What is left then?  The music.  And that is worth the price of admission.  The undisputed star in this is, of course, Damrau.  The last time I heard her was as Violetta in La Traviata, and I thoroughly enjoyed her performance.  I was equally impressed with this performance.  I don’t know how difficult Bellini’s music is for a vocalist, but I know she handled it with ease.  She is one of those whose soft singing can rise effortlessly to all corners of the auditorium.  I must say she does the comedic acting better than the dramatic ones, and at 42 may have some trouble passing herself off as a young woman.  But she managed a couple of full somersaults at the end that really wowed the audience.

The Mexican tenor Camerena started his professional career in 2004, and debuted at the Met in 2011.  This was the first time we heard him, and we were duly impressed.  His voice is beautiful and strong, and he matched Damrau every step of the way.

Rachelle Durkin as Lisa drew a mixed review from Anne.  I thought she acquitted herself quite well.  As someone who is in love with Elvino she shows the appropriate amount of jealousy towards Amina.  Her voice is generally pleasant, although her high registers can sound a bit harsh.  One effect (not sure it is intended or not) is Lisa comes across sometimes as jealous of Amina for Elvino’s love, and sometimes of Amina’s leading role.

Bernard Fitch singing role of Rodolfo did a good job.  I wish that character is developed a bit more in the story.  You go away knowing there is more to the character, but are left with filling in the blanks yourself.

Elizabeth Bishop as Amina’s mother Teresa didn’t have a heavy singing role.  I had seen her as Fricka in Das Rheingold (substituting for Stephanie Blythe) and Mother Marie in Dialogues des Carmelites; she did well in both.

The choreography is cleverly designed.  At the end the chorus came out dressed in Swiss (German?) garb to celebrate the happy ending.  A whole set of wardrobe used only for a few minutes, a bit of a waste.

I found a New York Times review of the opera dated back to the debut of the current production in 2009.  The cast is different, but the set is the same.  The reviewer doesn’t think much of the production either, opining that Zimmerman has not worked out the details of her concept.

After finishing this writeup, I went back to look at my review of the Sydney performance.  I called it "adequate."  So there is a huge difference between the two houses, after all.

A couple of additional points.  One is that Bellini died at the young age of 33.  The other is that what we saw was the first performance of the season; I am a bit surprised the number of empty seats in the auditorium.

Anne has been staying in Jersey City helping out during the week, so I stopped by at around 4:30 pm, had something to eat, and then we drove to Lincoln Center together.  I was pleasantly surprised that traffic wasn’t bad, and that I found off-street parking on Amsterdam.   The trip back to South Amboy was quite straightforward also.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Borodin’s Prince Igor. March 4, 2014.

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

Story.  Prince Igor of Putivl leads his army in battle with the Polovtsians and is defeated; he and his son Vladimir are taken prisoners.  Left behind in Putivl are Igor’s wife Yaroslavna and her brother Prince Galitsky.  Galitsky attempts to take over in Igor’s absence but fails to get the support of the boyars (noblemen).  He dies in the confusion from the panic created by the advancing Polovtsians.  Meanwhile, Igor escapes and returns to the ruins of Putivl.  He is recognized by the people and addresses them in repentance.  The people then start rebuilding the city.

Conductor – Gianandrea Noseda.  Prince Igor Svyatoslavich – Ildar Abdrazakov, Yaroslavna (Igor’s wife) – Oksana Dyka, Vladimir Igorevich (Igor’s son) – Sergey Semishkur, Prince Galitsky (Yaroslavna’s brother) – Mikhail Petrenko, Khan Konchak – Stefan Kocan, Konchakovna (Konchak’s daughter) – Anita Rachvelishvili, Polovtsian maiden – Kiri Deonarine.

Last Saturday, Anne and I caught the WQXR broadcast of Prince Igor.  It was during the intermission betweens Acts 2 and 3 when the commentators were talking glowingly about the performance, and telling us how beautiful the third act was going to be.  We were both disappointed when Act 3 started: the tune wasn’t particularly singable, and we weren’t sure what sentiment the soloist was trying to convey.  We didn’t hear the rest of the broadcast.

On paper the opera certainly is interesting.  First, it was by Alexander Borodin, one of “The Five” whose music (the little I know) I always find pleasant and compelling.  Second, Borodin died of a heart attack before he completed the opera.  He worked on it for 18 years; he was a “part time” musician, and this is a rather complex composition.  His contemporary Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov (the latter’s student) completed the work.  Because of that, there is no definitive version of the opera.  The Met decided to come up with a version that they claim to have restored a lot of the 20% of Borodin’s music that was omitted by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov (including Igor’s monologue in Act 3), and excised the parts that were extrapolations by them (the overture and much of Act 3.)  This was done with the help of several musicologists, and probably of interest to only musicologists.  A very trained ear may be able to tell how much more Borodin is in this version than the one traditionally used, but not mine.  Also, the last time the Met produced this opera was about a century ago!

The opera opens with a darkened auditorium.  A black and white Igor was then projected onto the curtain.  Screen projection turns out to be the technique used multiple times during the opening moments of the opera’s acts to fill in the blanks in the plots.  As the curtain was drawn, over 200 people were on stage.  The Putivlian army was preparing to go to war, townspeople were gathering in the town square to say farewell to the soldiers.  The singing of the chorus got the opera off on a good start.  The prolog was relatively short, and served to introduce many of the main characters.  In reading the synopsis, I had some trouble with keeping all the Russian names straight; interestingly it was rather easy to distinguish the different roles in the live show.

The Putivlians already lost their battle with the Polovtsians at the start of Act 1.  The curtain opened and Igor rose from the much talked-about poppy field scene.  For quite a while I couldn’t be sure if I was looking at real life or a projection.  Maybe that’s my poor eyesight, and my being in the balcony; but I suspect that is the intended effect also.  Adding to the dreamlike nature of this Act at the beginning was the haunting voice of a Polovtsian Maiden in the orchestra pit, accompanied by an English Horn.  For me unfortunately things became a bit much when some 50 dancers pranced around towards the end of the Act to denote life lived to the fullest.  Here is where the Polovtsian Dances are heard from the orchestra, and where the chorus sang from the boxes in the lower tiers.  These well-known melodies include the famous tune “Stranger in Paradise.”  While Igor was on stage during the entire act, his singing was limited to the dialogs with Ovlur (who suggested he should escape) and the Khan (who offered a truce.)  Igor rejected both, saying it would be a dishonor to escape and that he would continue to fight if set free.  A side remark is that Igor lying in a poppy field is the poster used by Met to “advertise” the opera: I thought his head was cut off (ala John the Baptist) and placed among the flowers.  That, obviously, is not so.

Act 2 is the dramatic part of the opera, so to speak.  The scenes depicted Vladimir (unfortunate confusing name of Prince Galitsky) being out of control and plotting rebellion against Igor in his absence but failed to get the support of the boyars.  The large crowds and the collapsing scenery at the end added to the drama.

Our exposure from WQXR notwithstanding, Act 3 actually started very well, with Yaroslavna lamenting the loss of Igor.  Oksana Dyka has a great voice but doesn’t seem to have a volume knob.  Her strong singing can definitely rise above a loud orchestra; I just wish that there is more wistfulness during some of these more meditative moments, and in many instances the orchestra is playing softly.

We have seen Abdrazakov several times, including the title role of Attila a few years ago.  My sentiments are the same: “although weak in some places, he in general sang well.”  What I wonder was how the “original” Act 3 would differ from the current one.  A search of Wikipedia results in a synopsis that is indeed quite different from the one in the Playbill.  The ending in this Met production was more compelling; here the people started to rebuild the city.

The story’s original setting is northeastern Ukraine in the 12th Century.  Per the Playbill, the Met’s production is set in a timeless space.  For me that means it is just a collection of nice costumes and nice sets, complete with rifles.  Nothing wrong with that, except I am sure equally compelling production with costumes and sets from the appropriate time period would work.  Also, there are still holes in the plot.  For instance, I was sure Igor refused to escape (somehow thinking it is not honorable,) but he managed to escape nonetheless, and I am still not sure how Galitsky died.

My misgivings (or suggestions for improvement) are minor compared with my overall enjoyment of the performance.  For most of the show the seat in front of me was empty resulting in a good view of the orchestra pit.  I have seen Noseda before, he had to be at his most energetic this time.  The orchestra responded well.

Another thought was the cast: most are from the former Soviet Union.  This is the week of the “Crimea Crisis” when Russia sent troops into the peninsula.  It is reassuring to see how well artists from Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia work together.  Let’s hope their off-stage chemistry is as good.

The New York Times review is glowing in its praise.  I didn’t find one negative remark in the lengthy writeup which also recaps the story.

Anne decided not to come to the performance because of grandchild babysitting duties, so I stopped by Jersey City for a quick visit before driving in.  Traffic was light both ways, and I found off-street parking.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

New Jersey Symphony – Santtu-Matias Rouvali, conductor; Xiaohui Yang, piano. March 1, 2014.

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ, Center Rear Orchestra (Seat T115, $29.)

Varsang (Spring Song), Op. 16 (1894, rev. 1895, 1902) by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).
Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 (1869, rev. 1872, 1895, 1907) by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907).
Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 (1890) by Dvorak (1841-1904).

There is the term “new normal” used by financial reporters to describe the current financial markets.  After my last attendance at an NJSO event I was hoping they had arrived at their own “new normal,” only in this case that they have made great improvements as an orchestra.  To that end I bought concerts to several concerts this season when they were on sale.  Certainly $29 for a live concert (and our seat was quite good) is a great bargain.

Alas, tonight we saw the “same old” orchestra performing a “same old” concert.  Not that there was anything overtly wrong, it was just a flat and uninspired performance.  And that description applies to all three pieces on the program tonight.

The program began with a short piece by Sibelius written early in his career.  Per the Program Notes at that time of his career Sibelius used Nordic themes instead of Finnish themes.  Someone well versed in music of Sibelius will be able to confirm this.  I am sure many people are, but I am not one of them.  Other than being uncharacteristically sunny, it sounded consistent enough with what I understand to be Sibelius’s music, so it is all good.

Appropriately enough, the conductor is Finnish, and seems to be quite young.  He conducts with exaggerated gestures but can’t quite get the orchestra to sync up its dynamics with his.  I was beginning to put the NJSO in the same league as NY Philharmonic; today things came back down to earth – I thought the performance was more like a high school orchestra (a great one, let’s say.)

Grieg’s piano concerto when played well is dramatic and can grip the audience for its entire 30 or so minutes.  In this instance, Yang certainly impressed with the opening chords.  Hope for a great performance was soon dashed.  I never thought I would ever wish for more use of the pedal during a performance, but that is what I kept hoping during the first two movements.  They just sounded disjoint.  There were flashes of virtuosity here or there, but there is not attempt at weaving a story together.  To be fair, I think the pianist found her pedaling foot in the third movement, and it sounded much better.

The pianist was raised in Northeast China, and is now getting her master’s degree at the Julliard.  She looks very young in the Program Notes photo.

If you don’t succeed, get up and try again.  So I got myself psyched up to expect a pleasant Dvorak symphony to provide a memorable experience.  This is Dvorak’s most popular symphony, after the ninth, after all.  That wasn’t to be.  We just had a flat rendition of the score dotted by a nice melody here and there (I especially enjoyed the trumpet and the English horn.)  The quiet passages, rather than being anticipatory, just dragged on.  That didn’t seem to bother our conductor as he continued to lead with the same level of gusto as he did at the beginning.  The term “comical incongruence” came to mind.

There was some discussion in the Program that some called this symphony “English” because it was played when Dvorak got his honorary doctorate at Cambridge (it was premiered in Prague.)  Interesting, Bach English suites have little to do with the English either.  The other association is “pastoral” which certainly fits quite well.

Going over my prior blogs, it seems I haven’t had much luck with this particular symphony.  I last heard it performed by New York Philharmonic, conducted by Joshua Weilerstein.  My remark about that concert was “The youth shall take over the world” but the old “needn’t be that worried …”  Similar sentiment obtains here, a little more so, I am afraid.  (Ironically this puts the two orchestras in the same league.)

Our next NJSO concert is in two weeks, with Hilary Hahn playing Brahms’s Violin Concerto.  Let’s hope it goes much better than tonight.