Sunday, April 27, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Rossini’s Le Cenerentola. April 25, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat G20, $98.50).

Story.  This is basically the well-known children story Cinderella, with a few notable differences that do not change the basic plot.  First, we have an evil step-father instead of an evil step-mother.  There was no pumpkin turning into a carriage, no rats that turn into coachmen; instead of a fairy godmother, we have an angel whose usual occupation is advisor to the Prince.  No glass slippers either: here we have matching bracelets.

Conductor – Fabio Luisi.  Angelina (Cinderella) – Joyce DiDonato, Don Ramiro (Prince) – Javier Camerena, Don Magnifico (Step-father) – Alessandro Corbelli, Clorinda and Tisbe (step-sisters) – Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Risley, Alidoro (advisor to Prince and part-time angel) – Luca Pisaroni, Dandini (Prince’s valet) – Pietro Spagnoli.

The problem with going to an opera with certain expectations is one’s reaction if those expectations are not met.  So let me first get those of out the way.

Biggest problem?  Not enough Joyce DiDonato.  Her role isn’t limited in any sense of the word, but it wasn’t dominating either.  And I would have liked a lot more arias out of Cinderella.  Next problem: not enough magic.  I think everyone going to see a show titled Cinderella expect to see pumpkins, rats, and hearing a clock that strikes twelve – with dire consequences.  All these tricks are well within the capability of the Met; unfortunately the score doesn’t call for this.  The only thing close to magical is when Alidoro as angel calls down a box from above, and inside the box is the gown for the Prince’s ball, and into which Cinderella appears.  Speaking of the sets, Spartan is the word for it.  Not that I usually look for elaborate sets, but you can get only so much out of a sofa with uneven legs, for instance.  Also, to make up for lack of midnight magic, there are many large clocks stuffed inside various closets all indicating midnight.  Either a hint for the audience to use its imagination, or a reminder that there is midnight, but no magic.

All these pale in comparison to how enjoyable the opera ends up being.

I have said every time I watch an opera buffa that I am not a fan of that genre.  This one is, however, as good as it gets.  (The other one that comes to mind is Flagstaff.)  I don’t know how to characteristic the story, but there are enough comedic elements in there to make me chuckle.

That starts at the very beginning.  The two sopranos singing the roles of the step-sisters don’t look the least bit alike, but they sing in such a way that they can be mistaken for twins.  The powers that be decided the two artists don’t rate a description in the “cast” section, but I thought they did really well, and they had rather substantial roles.

DiDonato delivered just the way I expected her to be: excellently.  Even though her mezzo-soprano voice didn’t penetrate (for lack of a better term) as well as the two sopranos, it still carried into the balcony beautifully.  In this opera the music demands a lot from the singers, but she made it sound effortless.  Interesting Cinderella in this story sometimes fights back, so there are no tear-jerkers, although the final aria comes close to being one.  Indeed before the final aria I thought Cinderella was underutilized in the story, luckily I hanged on because the Playbill talks glowingly about that aria.  And in this case it was not oversold.  After watching Maria Stuarda with DiDonato in the title role, I called that experience “perfect,” or close to it.  I must say this one doesn’t quite rise to that level.

We heard Camerena for the first time last month as Elvino in La Sonnambula.  I thought he was good.  He was great in this one, and he acted as if he really enjoyed it.  If I had gone to this opera expecting a great performance from the tenor, I wouldn’t have been disappointed.  I must have gone to over 50 Met performances over the years, and this was the first time ever I saw an encore.  (The only other encore was in the Muti-conducted Nabucco performance we saw in Rome.)  To be fair, this was well rehearsed in advance since everyone seems to know what excerpts to play.  In the publicity for this opera, he gets second billing to Juan Diego Flores.  I wonder how Flores would compare.

All the other singers pulled their weight also.  Spagnoli as the valet provided some of the better comedic moments.

Rossini’s music is light and fast, and the orchestra did a superb job.  The first thing we noticed was the much reduced size of the orchestra.  Four cellos and two double-basses, if I remember correctly.  I wonder if that is to accommodate the singers.  I don’t remember reduced size orchestras in other Rossini operas I have seen.  In the same vein, I read for Maria Stuarda some arias had their keys lowered to more suit DiDonato’s voice.  I wonder if that happened here, I certainly didn’t notice it.

The New York Times review spends much time in praising Camerena, and that’s fine.  The reviewer saw the opening night performance, and evidently there was no encore.  Also, Flores withdrew due to illness, so it has been all-Camerena.

We went to this opera with David and Ruby, whom we have known since the 1970s.  I am glad they enjoyed it.  One of our tickets had a $50 price reduction because we subscribed to next season.  Traffic into town was quite bad, so we had only time for a quick bite at Europan.

I mentioned to David that there are no heirs apparent to the three tenors, and the operatic world is looking for one (or several.)  Perhaps Camerena’s stock rises after this run?  I do wonder if anyone can match Domingo in stature and handsomeness at his prime, though.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Bellini’s I Puritani. April 17, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat B13, $87.50).

Story.  The setting is about 1650, the time of the English Civil War of Puritans versus Royalists.  Elvira is the daughter of the commander of the Plymouth fortress, a Puritan stronghold.  She is supposed to be married to Riccardo but is in love with the Royalist Arturo instead.  Her uncle Giorgio assures her that she won’t be forced into a marriage.  When Arturo visits, he is actually welcomed by the Puritans.  Queen Enrichetta, widow of King Charles who was executed, is held prisoner.  Arturo manages to escape with the Queen by placing Elvira’s bridal veil over Enrichetta’s head.  Elvira mistakes this act as abandonment by Arturo and goes mad.  Although Arturo is condemned by the Puritans to death, Riccardo is persuaded to forgive him if he returns as a friend.  While trying to escape from the pursuing Puritans, Arturo hides in the garden and overhears Elvira singing their old love song.  He is then discovered and arrested.  At that moment a messenger shows up declaring the final defeat of the Royalists and a general amnesty for the offenders.  Arturo is spared, Elvira regains her senses, and all rejoice.

Conductor – Michele Mariotti.  Elvira – Olga Peretyatko, Arturo – Lawrence Brownlee, Riccardo – Maksim Aniskin, Giorgio – Michele Pertusi, Enrichetta – Elizabeth Bishop.

The last two operas I went to were by Berg and Strauss (Wozzeck and Arabella), ones I had to work on to understand and to enjoy.  So it was a nice change of pace to attend a traditional bel canto opera.  Bellini was a music prodigy who died at age 33.  He left behind 11 operas (per Wikipedia,) of which I knew of three (Norma, La sonnambula, and I puritan.)  La sonnambula was the opera I saw before the two mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph.

Tonight’s performance was the first for this season, and it was the debut appearance of the Russian coloratura soprano Peretyatko.  Her image isn’t plastered all over the walls and the Metopera website as Jonas Kaufmann’s was, but there was considerable publicity nonetheless.  Let me first say this: she certainly met the expectations set by the hype.  Which, as I have noted before, isn’t a given.

The opera was written by Bellini with the four principal singers in mind, and there are solos and ensemble numbers that highlight their abilities.  However, the show is Elvira.  The role demands from the soprano a great range vocally and emotionally, a task Peretyatko dispatched like a veteran.  Her voice is beautiful, she can belt out strong melodies, and her whispers during the more reflective moments carry beautifully into the house.  Even for a non-singer, it is abundantly clear the lines are difficult technically, and her singing is the equivalent of a violinist showing off her flawless technical virtuosity.  I recall Damrau in La sonnambula looking completely effortless in delivering equally beautiful lines, and wonder if the operas place the same technical demands on the artists.

We have seen Brownlee a couple of times.  The first encounter was opposite Renee Fleming in Armida (in 2010,) he did very well but seemed nervous.  The second time was as Tonio in La Fille du Regiment, and I liked that also.  He certainly delivered again tonight.  For some reason he looked much heavier and older than I remembered him (it’s only been four years since I first saw him.)  A search of the web tells me he was born in 1972, making him over 40; I thought he was young (20s?) a few years ago.  His height was not a problem in the last two operas I saw; against the much taller Peretyatko, however, things looked a bit weird.

Pertussi as Giorgio was another standout.  As the “elder” statesman in the play, his singing was serious and provided the heft like a bass should.  Mariusz Kwiecien was in the program as Riccardo but withdrew because of illness; so Aniskim had his Met debut as a substitute.  At first he sounded weak and looked wooden, he improved substantially as the opera progressed.  As far as I could tell, the prompters’ box was dark the whole time.

In my write-up on Arabella, I remarked about how dated that production felt; and it debuted in the 80s.  For this opera the production dates from 1976, yet it feels quite appropriate.  The costumes worn by the artists (especially the chorus members,) are a mixture of traditional and pilgrim (think Massachusetts.)  Which brings up the question of why the opera is titled “The Puritans.”  I assume the story is fiction set in the Puritan community, but the main story has nothing to do with any religious or moral issues one with associate with them.

The story the opera tells is quite traditional: two people from different backgrounds fall in love.  Romeo and Juliet and Aida are examples that come to mind.  Instead of everyone dying at the end, the twist here is everything ends well.

This was overall a great experience.  I wish there were a few more singable tunes, pleasant as the arias are.  I have yet to become a fan of mad scenes as a dramatic element.  As mad scenes go, the ones in this opera are as good as they get – and there are quite a few of them, Elvira is out of it for Act 2 and most of Act 3.  The Playbill talks about a prior run with Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti; I wonder how this cast compares.

An interview in the Playbill with Peretyatko contains a few interesting tidbits.  One is that she started as a mezzo-soprano in her teens and eventually trained to be a coloratura soprano; quite a change in her range.  A second is she was originally signed to sing the Fiakermilli role in Arabella, but got upgraded to this role.  The third is that she is married to the conductor for this opera.  The last item may explain the rather tame love scenes: it would be awkward with the real husband watching.

The New York Times review came out a few hours ago.  The reviewer also contrasts Peretyatko’s performer with that of Anna Netrebko’s a few years back.  He wasn’t particularly impressed with the conductor, though

Kuau came by to give me a ride to Jersey City.  Anne and I had dinner at East Szechuan.  On the way to Lincoln Center the West Side highway was a bit congested; and we had to take the Holland Tunnel back because of work around Lincoln Tunnel.  Otherwise our rides were fine.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Strauss’s Arabella. April 16, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat C107, $102.50.)

Story.  Arabella and Zdenka are the daughters of Count and Countess Waldner, who have fallen on hard times.  Zdenka is brought up as a boy (named Zdenko) so the Waldners don’t have to incur the expenses of introducing two daughters into the Viennese society.  Arabella is courted by many people, including the young officer Matteo.  Zdenko acts as the go-between but falls in love with Matteo.  Meanwhile, the Count tries to contact his old rich friend Mandryka to see if he is interested in marrying Arabella.  Mandryka has died so his nephew and heir (with same name) shows up.  Arabella and Mandryka immediate fall in love and plans to get engaged.  To calm the agitated Matteo, Zdenka gives him the key next to Arabella’s room but Zdenka ends up spending the night with Matteo.  Thinking Arabella has betrayed him, Mandryka plans to leave the Waldners.  Zdenka appears in her nightgown and admits she is the one with Matteo.  The story ends with Arabella declaring her love for Mandryka by following the tradition of bringing him a glass of water.

Conductor – Philippe Auguin.  Arabella – Malin Bystrom, Zdenka – Juliane Banse, Mandryka – Michael Volle, Countess Waldner – Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Count Waldner – Martin Winkler, Matteo – Roberto Sacca.

I have found Strauss (Richard) generally difficult to understand.  There are usually some nice and memorable melodies in his compositions (tone poems, operas, what not), but the works as a whole usually elude me.  This is also true for this particular opera, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

The story has many parallels to Der Rosenkavalier.   One aspect is this “tradition” of bringing a glass of water to one’s lover.  In Rosenkavalier the tradition is a silver rose.  We know the rose tradition is made up by Strauss, I wonder if the glass of water is made up also.  Regardless, the glass gives Arabella a dramatically satisfying ending.

There are many solos and a few duets in the opera, with most of them against a rich texture provided by the orchestra.  For a first time listener, the passages sound quite complicated and thus not quite accessible.  However, I can appreciate how well the artists delivered the numbers, and would probably enjoy them more on subsequent listens.  In general, the voices and the orchestra complemented each other quite well, even though the voices tend to be on the weak side.  The orchestra sound was lush and clear most of the time; however, there were occasional slips in its delivery.

For a while I thought it was I that kept thinking the voices didn’t project as well as they should.  Turns out my assessment wasn’t without merit.  Before Act III began there was an announcement that Sacca couldn’t continue and would be replaced by another singer (didn’t catch the replacement’s name.)  Matteo had less a role to play in the final Act, so it worked out okay.  This also got me to notice the active cuing done by the prompters.  I had never seen so many hand gestures from the prompters’ box before.

Most of the singers also acted their parts well.  Arabella carries herself with quiet dignity, Zdenka acts like the tom-boy she is supposed to be, and the Count and Countess are much more likeable than Faninal (in Der Rosenkavalier) even though they are in similarly dire straits.  I do have some issues with how Mandryka is portrayed.  While he is a self-deprecating “country bumpkin,” his rough edges often come across as crude.  His first appearance in a fur coat and high boots was a disappointment.  On the other hand, the performance will have a hard time qualifying as a comedy had it not been for his acting (or overacting.)

The sets are for 1860 Vienna.  They reflect the opulence of Viennese society at the time.  Actually, for someone strapped financially the Waldners live and dress well.  I consider myself a traditionalist when it comes to costumes and sets, so I appreciate what I see.  The sets do look a bit worn – they were first used in 1983.

The story has many parallels to Der Rosenkavalier.   One aspect is this “tradition” of bringing a glass of water to one’s lover.  In Rosenkavalier the tradition is a silver rose.  We know the rose tradition is made up by Strauss, I wonder if the glass of water is made up also.  Regardless, the glass gives Arabella a dramatically satisfying ending.

The scene where Arabella tells her suitors that they can only be friends reminds me of the very first opera I wrote a review for : Puccini's Fanciulla del West, specifically the scene where Minnie was asking for mercy from her friends one by one.  I remember that as being quite a bit more compelling.

The gentleman sitting next to me also attended this opera by himself – his wife was out of town.  In any case, we were lamenting the number of vacant seats tonight, and whether the Met has been successful in drawing in a younger crowd with its slew of new sets.  Tonight would be an argument to go with the new.

My neighbor thought this was a great opera, I have to go with “it’s okay.”  Considering this opera premiered in 1933, that was high praise.

The New York Times reviewer loves Volle as Mandryko, calling him the only one with the elemental energies as an actor.  Evidently the Met is bringing Volle back as Wotan for their next Ring.  The review also complains of the lack of personality in Bystrom’s Araella.  Well, Bystrom is Swedish; my one trip in Sweden left me with the impression the Swedes are one of the most reserved people (at least in public.)  It should be noted Banse is also Swedish, so much for type-casting.  If I were to summarize the Times review, it would be “it’s okay.”

Anne was in Jersey City, so I ended up going to this opera by myself.  With Pulaski Skyway closed, I thought traffic was going to be bad.  Indeed the wait to get to Lincoln Tunnel was over an hour; however, by going through Jersey City I encountered little traffic.  Off-street parking again cost only $1.50.  Construction on the helix did slow down my return: I got back at around 12:15 am.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Christoph von Dohnanyi, conductor; Paul Lewis, piano. April 10, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat G116, $62.50.)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1858) by Brahms (1833-97).
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61 (1845-46) by Schumann (1810-56).

After getting a heavy dosage of modern compositions in the last several concerts, I was looking forward to tonight’s program of pure romantic music.  The pieces have some interesting attributes: the Brahms concerto is one of the composer’s earlier work, and is quite lengthy for a piano concerto, it was also completed soon after Schumann’s death; the Schumann piece was written about a year after he battled with his serious illness, and he thought people would notice the effect.

The Brahms concerto is more fiery and virtuoso than thoughtful and mature.  The orchestra certainly started the rather long introduction that way.  The piano announces its presence with a soft yet effective statement that says “quiet down and listen to what I have to say.”  Eventually the piano and the orchestra become equal partners in the give and take. 

The performance was so enjoyable that the piece didn’t feel 50 minutes long at all.    The movements are Maestoso, Adagio, and Rondo – Allegro non troppo.  The Playbill’s “In Depth” article is on Lewis, who was brought up in a working class family but somehow discovered the piano in a local library, an example of natural talent coming through despite one’s background.  The article also talks about him creating a buzz at last year’s Mostly Mozart Festival.  Sure enough we heard him play Mozart’s 25th at that concert.  My remarks were short.  While I enjoyed that performance, I thought he was too liberal with the tempo, and used too much pedal.  Varying the tempo is certainly more acceptable with Brahms, and Lewis did that to good effect.  For me he still used too much pedaling, thus muddling some of the grander passages.

The Playbill has a paragraph “Pondering Schumann’s Second” that was quite interesting.  It talks about the criticism that this symphony (especially the first and last movements) as failing to drive home ideas to their logical conclusions.  It also offers an alternative view that the symphony is a progression of specific ideas (called “bildungsroman”).  That short paragraph, it turns out, helped a lot in my appreciation of the work.  Instead of trying to impose the usual structure on the music, I simply let it take me wherever it leads.  I do wonder how I would feel if I had not read the Playbill in advance.  I also question the statement that many critics during Schumann’s time viewed the symphony as such; to my knowledge, very few works from that period fall into this category.  (Actually, this is the first I heard of it; maybe I am that ignorant.)

The Program contains the wrong movement listings for the symphony.  The insert lists the correct ones: (i) Sostenuto assai – Allegro, ma non troppo; (ii) Scherzo: Allegro vivace; (iii) Adagio espressivo; and (iv) Allegro molto vivace.  However, a couple sitting in front of us had the large-print edition which didn’t come with the inserts.  They had a hard time reconciling what they heard with what was in their program.  (For instance, the last movement listed is Andante – allegro.)  It turns out the movement listings were from Shostakovich’s Tenth.  Why do I know?  Because I went to that concert last week.

Our seats in row G were very close to the stage.  That still doesn’t explain why I thought the orchestra sounded sloppy (for both pieces.)  The violins consistently had problems with Schumann’s Scherzo movement, especially when they had to come in on the upbeat.  And this is the first time I could distinctly hear the individual instruments (not a good thing, in my opinion.)  I have had seats further up front before, and that was never a problem with this orchestra.  I was surprised (maybe again?) that von Dohnanyi is in his 80s.  The Wikipedia entry says Alan Gilbert was his assistant conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra.

The effusive New York Times review contains a plethora of adjectives in praise of Lewis’s performance and leaves no doubt that the reviewer is a fan of Dohnanyi.  As to the Schumann Symphony, the reviewer says “the Philharmonic strings dispatched the rippling figures of the scurrying Scherzo effortlessly,” quite the opposite of how I felt.

Regardless, it was an enjoyable evening of classical romantic music.

Monday, April 07, 2014

New Jersey Symphony – Jacques Lacombe, conductor. April 5, 2014.

State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ, Balcony (Seat C105, $32.)

Requiem (1869-74) by Verdi (1813-1901).

Marianne Fiset – soprano, Janara Kellerman – mezzo-soprano, Russell Thomas – tenor, Peter Volpe – Bass.
Montclair State University Chorale – Heather J. Buchanan, director.

There it is again, Jekyll and Hyde.  My last couple of postings described in no uncertain terms my disappointment in the NJSO, after my hope was raised by a concert led by Lacombe.  Then what happens?  NJSO delivers a good performance, so now I am quite confused.  However, lest we go overboard, I said a good performance, not a great performance.

I heard this requiem about six years ago, played by New York Philharmonic, led by Lorin Maazel.  My overall assessment of that performance was “excellent,” although I did find some isolated problems here and there.

Of course I had completely forgotten what the music sounds like.  Unlike many of the pieces I had heard recently, it was not difficult to appreciate the composition at all.

I was reminded once again that Verdi was not a religious man: actually the Program Notes from six years ago calls him an atheist.  Nonetheless, one cannot help be moved by the music and what it represents.  Basically a requiem is a mass for the dead, with a standard text on mercy, days of wrath, judgment, supplication for redemption, holy lamb of God, eternal light, and deliverance from hell.  I recall having heard the requiems by Mozart, Faure, Britten, and Brahms, and while they are all excellent in their particular way, none is as powerful as this one.

A good example is Dies Irae.  There is wrath, and there is WRATH.  The two bass drums were hit so violently that the entire auditorium shook.  We were in the balcony and really empathized with the artists that were on stage, especially the double bass players right in front of them.  The brass episode (Tuba mirum), with some players in the back of the auditorium, was simply magnificent.

There were about 120 members in the Montclair Chorale.  Overall they did a great job with precision.  However, they sounded a bit on the weak side, especially considering the size of the ensemble and the size of the theater.  Not the Westminster, but quite good nonetheless.

The soloists all projected well.  However, they only seemed to be able to do so while shouting at the top of their lungs.  I wish there was a bit more dynamic range to their performance.  They complemented one another well, and all had rather significant and difficult passages to tackle.

While listening to a requiem I tend to concentrate on the vocal parts: trying to follow the Latin and looking up the English translation in the darkened hall aren't easy and usually occupy most of my bandwidth.   Despite that, I still appreciated how the orchestra did.  It actually was very responsive to Lacombe’s direction and performed its task with enthusiasm, precision, and remarkable dynamic range.

We have another NJSO concert this season, again conducted by Lacombe.  To paraphrase Forrest Gump, I wonder what kind of chocolate I will get this time.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor; Peter Serkin, piano. April 3, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat CC103, $40.)

Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a (1944-45) by Britten (1913-76).
Piano Concerto No. 3, BB 127 (1945) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953) by Shostakovich (1906-75).

I got a ticket to this concert in exchange for one I couldn’t get to a couple of weeks ago.  One of the reasons I didn’t include this in my NY Phil subscription was probably the program itself: all three pieces were written in the 1940s and 50s.  Since I attended another “modern” program just a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the evening.  On the positive side, all three composers fall into the “I do get their music” camp.

It turned out to be a rather enjoyable evening, even though it was a bit on the long side.  Per the Playbill, the three pieces last 16, 23 and 53 minutes respectively; and they have to bring out the piano after the first piece.  It was around 10 pm when I left Avery Fisher, the concert started at 7:30 pm.

Peter Grimes was an opera written with the tenor part crafted for Peter Pears, who was in a spousal relationship (Playbill’s words) with Britten.  The seven scenes of the opera are separated by six interludes, of which Britten extracted four and published them as the piece for today’s performance.  He also renamed the interludes Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight, and Storm.

With 2013 being Britten’s 100th birthday, we certainly have had a lot of exposure to his music last couple of years.  Today’s experience is quite similar: his music is generally pleasant and relatively easy to grasp.  Indeed the moods of the four interludes by-and-large followed their descriptions.  For instance, one could make the case of hearing a sunrise during Dawn, and church bells during Sunday Morning.  (Of course I am not sure I will be that perceptive if they didn’t provide the titles.)  The only exception would be Moonlight.  The title would imply a calm evening with moonlight reflecting off the sea.  That may well be true for Beethoven and Debussy, but here it was more mystery than serenity.

It was a good start for the evening for the young Spanish conductor Heras-Casado.  For me the Storm showcased how he managed to keep the orchestra reined in even during its wilder moments.  He also conducts without a baton.

Bartok’s piano concerto was written during the composer’s last year before he died of leukemia.  It was meant to be performed by his wife Ditta Pasztory-Bartok so she could generate some income from performing it.  Bartok died before the work was completed, his student and friend Tibor Serly orchestrated the incomplete 17 measures.  The three movements are (i) Allegretto; (ii) Allegro religioso – [Poco piu mosso] – Tempo I; and (iii) [Allegro vivace] –[Presto]. His wife went back to Hungary after Bartok’s death and only played the piece in public about 20 years after his death.

All in all a poignant and sad story, but not one reflected in the music.  I agree with the Playbill’s assessment: greatly lyrical, sometimes prayerful, often mysterious, touchingly naturalistic; and wonder how long it took the annotator to come up with these phrases.  I must say I didn’t get the quotations of birdsongs in the middle movement, though.

I have heard Peter Serkin a couple of times before, my assessment today is about the same: I am sure he is a great pianist, given the list of his accomplishments, but the greatness didn’t come through today.  To quote my remark after him playing Bartok’s first piano concerto (2006): I haven’t heard enough of him to form a strong opinion, but I am quite sure he is a great pianist in his own right; and after playing Stravinsky’s Capriccio (2012): Yet one wonders how they compare (talking about his father Rudolf), …, the piano was overwhelmed sometimes by the orchestra, even though Serkin seemed to be pounding away at it.  Well, today is technically a third strike.

And I also heard this same piano concerto before, in a Mostly Mozart performance (2012).  My remark there was the music was easy to understand, and – interestingly – I thought the piano dominated the performance, with the soloist putting in a delightful performance.

It was by this time that I realized the concert was to be longer than usual: we still have a 53 minute symphony ahead of us.  Indeed the two people sitting in front of me left after the intermission.  I am glad I stayed, though.

Of all the Shostakovich symphonies I have heard before (it has not been that many,) this is probably the easiest one to understand.  The symphony starts simply with a Moderato first movement that eventually becomes quite chaotic and complex.  There was ample opportunity for the orchestra to run wild, but Heras-Casado managed to keep things nicely under control.  There are quite a few very pleasant solo passages (e.g., by the clarinet.)  The coda to the rather long movement (about 27 minutes) was a bit inscrutable, though.  The Playbill goes into a discussion of whether the scherzo movement contains a caricature of Stalin, who had died recently.  Under Stalinist Russia, Shostakovich was sometimes praised, and sometimes criticized by the state for writing music that may or may not be appropriately revolutionary.  The markings for the second and third movements are Allegro and Allegretto.  The second movement is lively enough that it could be called a scherzo, and one can hear sarcastic tones in it.  It was short (about 3 minutes) but enjoyable, and ends on a rousing flourish.  Interestingly, the third movement also sounded like a scherzo, but it ends quietly.  The music continues without pause to the fourth movement (Andante – Allegro) which abounds with nice melodies by various instruments, especially those in the woodwind section.  The 53 minutes (advertised) went by quickly.

I don’t know how New York Philharmonic selects conductors for debut appearances.  I would like to think Heras-Casada gets invited back in the near future.

I wanted to stop by Jersey City on my way back, and kept ignoring the GPS’s suggestion that I should take the Lincoln Tunnel.  What a mistake, Jersey City was fixing its potholes and the wait time for Holland Tunnel was up to 90 minutes.  I worked my way across downtown, then up, and across to get to Lincoln.  It was around midnight when I got to Jersey City.

The New York Times review is quite positive, calling Heras-Casado “A Master of Texture.”  The reviewer also likes how the Bartok concerto was performed.