Tuesday, May 27, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Vladimir Jurowski, conductor; Nicola Benedetti, violin. May 23, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 1 (Seat S101, $67.)

Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 35 (1916) by Szymanowski (1882-1937).
Selections from Cinderella (Zolushka) (1940-44) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).

I didn’t include this concert as part of the season subscription due to two reasons: I didn’t quite get the violin concerto when I heard it performed a couple of years ago by Glenn Dicterow; and though I enjoyed Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (both in concert and as a ballet), I didn’t feel a particular urge to listen to it again.  The astute reader will say “but this is a different ballet.”  Indeed it is, somehow my mental block didn’t clear until a couple of weeks ago.  Meanwhile, NY Phil was offering $59/$39 seats; so the stars are in alignment.  I also found out Janine Jansen, who was on the program, had to withdraw, and Nicola Benedetti would be performing.  Benedetti certainly has an impressive resume, including an appointment as MBE in 2013.

I don’t recall much from Dicterow’s performance, except (perhaps) remarking why would he make such a selection and that the New York Times reviewer says Dicterow “owns” this concerto.  A second hearing does allow one to gain more insight into a particular composition.  Indeed the Playbill notes (which I read online the day before) makes the music quite interesting, describing how Symanowski’s music was influenced by others such as Chopin and Wagner, and how he tried to establish a Polish style.  The concerto was written for his close friend Pawel Kochanski, with the latter contributing most of the cadenza at the end.

In many ways this was a better performance; however, better doesn’t mean good – I was just a little less puzzled by the composition.  Since Benedetti was called upon to play on short notice, use of the music score is understandable; she wasn’t glued to the music as Dicterow was, actually.  There is no doubt the music calls for great virtuosity from the performer with its difficult double stop and harmonics passages; surprisingly there was little use of the pizzicato or staccato.  I also wonder about the need for the cadenza; it didn’t appear to be any more difficult than the composition, and didn’t sound like a recap of the music either.  There was some drama at the end, but not nearly enough to make this sound much more an etude to me.

One other surprise was the violin, a 1717 Stradivarius.  I expected it to sound much fuller and more brilliant than it did.  Benedetto also had more problems with intonation than I expected.  Someone was sound asleep in the audience during a good part of the performance.  I wonder if there is an etiquette to what his (unlikely her) neighbors should do – a gentle poke?

Prokofiev extracted between seven to eight movements of Cinderella to create three different orchestral suites.  He reworked the music for an orchestral presentation without regard for the story.  For this concert Jurowski utilized 21 movements that keeps the story line intact. For completeness, the selections are as follows.  From Act One: Introduction (Andante dolce), Pas de chale (Allegretto), Cinderella (Andante dolce), the Sisters’ New Clothes (Vivo), The Dancing Lesson (Allegretto), Cinderella Dreams of the Ball (Andante dolce), Fairy Godmother Returns (Adagio).  From Act Two: Dance of the Courtiers (Andante grazioso), Mazurka and Entrance of the Prince (Allegretto), Grand Waltz (Allegretto), Promenade (Allegro tranquillo), Duet of the Prince and Cinderella (Adagio), Waltz-Coda (Allegro espressivo), Midnight (Allegro moderato – Moderato).  From Act Three: The Prince’s First Galop (Presto – Andante), Temptation (Moderato – Allegretto), The Prince’s Second Galop (Presto), The Prince’s Visit (Vivace), The Prince Finds Cinderella (Adagio passionate), Amoroso (Andante dolcissimo).

I saw the Rossini opera where the storyline didn’t follow the “traditional” fairy tale.  The movement descriptions above are straightforward enough.  Except oftentimes I couldn’t tell when a movement ends and the next one begins.  Without dancers on stage telling the story, most people probably would find it difficult to reconstruct the narrative.  Actually for most part the music sounded just so-so, without drama.  One notable exception was when mid-night approaches: the tick-tock sound of the wood blocks followed by bells chiming twelve times added quite a bit of urgency (this was lacking in the Rossini opera).  Indeed the music from Act 3 did have some sense of urgency and ecstasy in it.

I was surprised this series of concerts constituted the debut for Jurowski with the New York Philharmonic.  I did watch his brother Dmitri conduct the Hong Kong Philharmonic three years ago.  Compared to Dmitri, Vladimir’s movements were more exaggerated.  The orchestra seemed to respond well.  Unfortunately, I do not know the music on today’s program well enough to distinguish between a good and a great performance.

The New York Times reviewer has a lot of good things to say about the Syzmanowski piece.  She isn’t that enamored of the Prokofiev ballet either, opining – among other misgivings – that it is too long.  ABT will be performing this ballet in June.  The ballet is even longer at close to two hours; I am a bit tempted to go see it, though.

I went to the 2 pm concert by myself, taking PATH into the city from Jersey City and going back to New Jersey via NJ Transit.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The USNA Women’s Glee Club Commissioning Week Concert – Cindy Bauchspies, director. May 20, 2014.

Mahan Hall, US Naval Academy.  Orchestra Center (Seat C205, $19.)

Johnny was my high school classmate (in Hong Kong) and college roommate (in Ithaca, NY); we have known each other for about 45 years! His daughter just completed her first year as a midshipman at the USNA, and Johnny flew out to Maryland to meet up with her for a week or so.  I decided to spend a day down there to see them.  Stephanie sings in the Women’s Glee Club, and they have a concert during the week.

There are many events scheduled for the week, my main objective was to catch up with an old friend, so we just spent time walking on the grounds, chatting away as we did.  The Blue Angels were practicing for a show the following day.  I am not a fan of daredevil shows, but still appreciated the precision of this group of highly skilled pilots.  We also visited the dorm, the chapel, and a couple of museums.

The Glee Club consists of about 50 young women, about 11 of them are graduating this year.  They have a rather busy touring schedule, including a visit to the JFK Library in Boston earlier this year.

The program was relatively short at a bit over an hour, with a good mix of traditional music (such as the National Anthem and America the Beautiful) and modern music (Ave verum Corpus by Poulenc, for instance).  They also put on a “staged performance” of “Forget about the Boy” from “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”  Most of the songs were performed a cappella, a few had the piano as accompaniment.

We had a quick snack at about 5 pm at the Chick and Ruth Delly before the concert with a few of Stephanie’s classmates.  The single crab cake platter was a reasonable $16 (or so).  The crab cake was quite filling, but Johnny and I still stopped by Denny’s for an omelet and dessert (respectively) afterwards.

A pleasant day, even though I had to drive close to 200 miles each way.

New York Philharmonic – Bernard Haitink, conductor. May 16, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  First Tier Center (Seat BB113, $54.)

Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1895-96, rev. through 1906) by Mahler (1860-1911).

Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano; Women of New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, director; Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun-Menaker, artistic director.

At about 100 minutes, this must be the longest symphony I have encountered.  It was last performed by the New York Philharmonic in September 2009, not that long ago.  I did go to a New York Phil concert that month, but it was not the same program (whew.)

When first completed, Mahler provided a program for the symphony as follows.  Part One: Pan awakes.  Summer Marches In. (Pan’s procession) Part Two: What the flowers of the meadow tell me; What the animals of the forest tell me; What man tells me; What the angels tell me; and What love tells me.  The first part is over 30 minutes, about a third of the entire composition.  For whatever reason Mahler withdrew all his program-related markings in the music, and provided rather sterile tempo markings.  Part One: 1. Forcefully, Decisively.  Part Two: 2.  Tempo di minuetto, Moderately; 3. Comodo.  Scherzando.  Unhurriedly; 4. Very slow.  Misterioso.  Pianississimo throughout. (O Mensch! Gib acht! From Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra); 5. Joyous in tempo and jaunty in expression (Bimm bamm – Es sungen drei Engel, from Des Knaben Wunderhorn); 6; Slow.  Calm.  Deeply felt.

I could use the excuse that my memory has faded considerably over the course of the last five days; in actual fact I couldn’t make too many informed remarks about what I heard.

Bernard Haitink has had a long and distinguished career as a conductor.  I thought I had never seen him, but a check of my blog revealed one encounter in November, 2011.  The most salient point is his stamina.  When I saw the stool on the podium, I expected him to walk out in a cane.  He didn’t, and he used the stool only occasionally, in between movements and during some of the slower passages.  He also had a long program in November 2011.  One difference would be how he was treated: like a rock star last time, (only) enthusiastically this time.

This was a debut performance by the Buenos Aires-born Bernarda Fink.  While there was nothing wrong with the performance, and indeed she projected well, the role is quite limited (perhaps less than 15 minutes of singing.)  The chorus part was similarly short in duration.  While Fink only had to come out during Part Two, the poor choral members had to sit through the whole program.  I forgot my binoculars, so couldn’t tell if anyone was falling asleep while waiting.

Playbill describes this long symphony as one of Mahler’s easiest for the audience, and it is indeed so.  It still has a lot of the wanderings that (for me) characterize Mahler’s music, and it also has a heavy dosage of beautiful brass passages.  There are extended passages of relative simplicity that are easy to grasp.  The trombone certainly gets quite a bit of a work out, and there was an offstage trumpet (or rather a "posthorn" per my research) that sang out beautifully.

Two sets of timpani were used in the piece.  At the end they were playing in unison.  I don’t know if it is by design, but one note was slightly off and as a result you hear this quick beat.  Anne did note one of the timpanists feverishly trying to tune his set of drums.  She also observed one of the first violin players broke a string on her instrument, and when Fink came on stage she handed Glenn Dicterow a bag which he in turn gave to the violinist.  Anne kept gesturing that to me, but I didn’t quite know what she was trying to tell me.  So I missed that also.  I guess I was not particularly observant that day.

Overall it was a very enjoyable concert.  Mahler wrote most of his symphonies by the scenic Attersee in Upper Austria.  The Playbill relays a remark he made to Bruno Walter who was enjoying the scenery: “You need not stand staring at that; I have already composed it all.”  Indeed I have described Mahler’s music astaking the listeners on a stroll, but not quite to the level of having “composed it all.”

The New York Times review talks a bit about the orchestras with a Mahler tradition (in addition to New York Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw, Vienna Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic), and the reviewer enjoyed this performance.  He actually recalls Haitink conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the Concertgebouw in 1995, that’s quite impressive. 

Perhaps a preview of summer Friday afternoon traffic, it took us a while to drive into the city (from Jersey City), and I had trouble finding off-street parking.  Anne had to box up the food she bought at Europan for me to gulp down in less than 10 minutes.  I still enjoyed the ham and cheese quiche.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Bach Festival Day 1, The Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Greg Funfgeld, conductor. May 2, 2014.

Events attended (all at Lehigh University):
Distinguished Scholar Lecture – Michael Marissen, Black Box Theater, Zoellner Arts Center (free).
Bach Cantatas, Packer Memorial Church (Lower Transept Seat LL11, $29).
Dinner and Discussion, Asa Packer Room, University Center – Lecture by Larry Lipkis ($35).

Cantata BWV 106 – Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit.  Agnes Zsigovics - soprano, Daniel Taylor – Countertenor, Benjamin Butterfield – tenor, William Sharp, baritone.
Cantata BWV 56 – Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen.  Daniel Lichti, bass-baritone.
Cantata BWV 131 – Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr zu dir. Zsigovics, Taylor & Butterfield.

I wasn’t planning on going to this event as I had a scheduled trip to Hong Kong.  Now that the HK trip is canceled, and I also ran into Dave and Vivien in Newark a few days ago, I decided to go.  Bethlehem is about 80 miles away, but it is mostly highway traffic, so my plan was to get there for the entire day’s program and come home after the evening concert.  I was coming down with a cold and didn’t feel that great, so I decided to leave after the dinner talk, forgoing the evening concert for which I got a ticket.

It is always interesting to go to these events with David.  He has a genuine interest and detailed knowledge in Bach, and I always learn something from him.  (He is the same person I go to these Princeton chamber music concerts during the summer.)  And today was no exception.  To him and to the many who take the Bach Festival seriously, I say good on you folks.  For me learning a thing or two about the composer every couple of years is enough.

My deepest “insight” this year is Bach for me is more fun to analyze than to listen to.  It is amazing that the composer can get many lines going contrapuntally.  I can understand and appreciate this on paper, but frankly I have a hard time tracking more than 3 lines at the same time, even with the music in front of me.  If I am listening to it without the music score, it is worse.  While I was in college I was considered one with a rather good ear (among students majoring in music), so I really doubt I am particularly bad at this compared to your average Bach listener.

Dave relayed a story about how Mozart looked at 8 individual parts of a Bach composition and says “that makes sense.”  I can probably “get it” if I spend a lot of time reading, analyzing, and playing out the lines individually and at the same time.  (Indeed I did analyze a few cantatas during music composition classes.)  However, for now I shall adopt the “if I don’t know what it is, I may not care I miss it” attitude.

I got to the lecture by Marissen late (there was a tie-up on Route 287).  It took me a while to grasp what he was trying to say.  I believe it has to do with how one can interpret Bach’s cantata in a secular way or a religious way.  I have decided not to challenge him or agree with him (it will be in my mind in either case, I had no intention of talking to him in person.)  Dave says he is generally a great speaker.

The soloists are the same as two years ago (I think they are permanent staff).  Generally the singing is good.  I was reminded by Dave that in Bach’s day boys sang the part of the soprano and countertenors sang alto.

Somehow I get the feeling that the audience is not really going to these concerts with the mind of a critic; they are there to get another few cantatas under the belt.  Which is okay with me.  Bach left behind over 200 cantatas (guess who my source is) so at six a year that will take them quite a while.

The talk during dinner by Lipkis was more interesting.  It was more like a pre-concert talk as he talked about each of the evening concert cantatas in some detail.  I joked to Dave that he made it so interesting that I wanted to stay, particularly since the evening cantatas deploy a larger choir and more orchestra instruments.   I didn’t stay as I don’t know if I could hold out for that long.

This was the 107th festival.  They were offering discounts of up to 40% on their tickets, which is not a good sign.  While I am not crazy about it, I don’t mind a heavy dosage of Bach every year or so.

This was an abbreviated trip, but I did learn something, and got to visit again with old friends.  It was a good trip.  I read over my notes from the first festival I attended (2012,) and find to my surprise I am much more positive this year.