Monday, June 30, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano; Glenn Dicterow, violin; Carter Brey, cello. June 16, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra G115 ($68.50.)

Program: The Beethoven Piano Concertos: A Philharmonic Festival.
Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Cello in C major, Op. 56 (1804).
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, Emperor (1809).

For me, tonight’s concert is as much about the Emperor Concerto as it is about its being the final program with Glenn Dicterow as the concertmaster.  As music goes, both are easy pieces to enjoy, and the majesty of the Emperor contrasts very well with the genteelness of the Triple.

I have remarked many times on Glenn Dicterow as a soloist, and the comments mostly fall under the “critical” category.  To be fair, that the New York Philharmonic has enjoyed a solid reputation during his 34 years as its concertmaster speaks volumes about his leadership; it is something that he has every right to take credit for, and be proud of.  I joined in the enthusiastic applause as the soloists and Gilbert took the stage; I am sure most of the welcome was directed at Dicterow.

For me the Triple Concerto is best characterized as a Trio played against an orchestra more as an accompaniment than as an equal partner; there are of course some instances that the orchestra asserted itself.  As to the composition itself, a quote from the Playbill is illuminating: the very people who most blame Beethoven for writing below his full powers would be the first to acclaim it as the work of a still greater composer.  Indeed it doesn’t have the “sturm und drang” that characterize so many of the composer’s works; instead it is a light-hearted piece that could even pass itself off as background music.  (I am sure the composition student can find a lot to admire about the work’s details.)

For tonight, it was simply an enjoyable composition played by great musicians.  In case one is wondering, that remark applies to Dicterow too.  One of the constant refrain I have made about Dicterow is his choice of music when he was a soloist: the compositions were chosen more for his fellow musicians and scholars than the typical concert-goer.  I wonder how my opinion would have been shaped if he had performed works by composers such as Lalo, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven, instead of Szymanowski and Dutilleux.  I guess we will never know …

The applause was thunderous afterwards.  I seldom stand up during curtain call – as a matter of principle, great performances are expected of world class players – but I did tonight.  I think the appreciation shown by the audience is well-deserved.  As it was, this series also concluded Bronfman’s two-year stint as artist-in-residence.

By the time the Emperor Concerto was premiered in Leipzig, Beethoven’s deafness had advanced such that he couldn’t introduce it as the soloist.  Evidently the concerto got its nickname because someone shouted “C’est l’Empereur!” during its Viennese premiere.  Beethoven by that time was totally disillusioned with Napoleon.

The piece, like his violin concerto, with its great contrasts, is characteristically Beethoven.  Bronfman just sat there and pounded out a great interpretation.  I said after the last concert that his playing reminded me a lot of Emanuel Ax’s; that was reinforced today.

Overall, this was a great way for the orchestra to conclude its regular season.

It was just a great evening of music.  I do want to record a couple of (small) quibbles.  First, I thought Carter Brey’s cello could be a bit louder.  The cello has a prominent role in the Triple Concerto, and Brey’s playing was exquisite, but I would have like to hear more of it.  The other complaint is the Emperor Concerto calls for a lot of majestic playing that sometimes sounded loud instead.  Most of the time Bronfman’s interpretation was majestic, but every now and then some harshness crept in.

For completeness, the three movements of the Triple Concerto are Allegro, Largo, and Rondo alla Polacca, and those of the Emperor Concerto are Allegro, Adagio un poco mosso, and Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo.

The New York Times review spends most of its energy on discussing the various players, dishing out some insider information in the process.  Interestingly the reviewer didn’t have much more to say about the music or the performance either.

We left Boston this morning, after spending a few days helping out with household duties while our son went to Brazil with a group of friends to watch a few FIFA World Cup matches.  It would have been too stressful to drive home and then come back to the city, so we went straight to the city, getting in at around 4:30 pm.  While we were in Rubenstein Atrium having coffee and deciding what to do, the opportunity to meet with Nancy came up.  She was to start her work with a non-profit that we support in a few days, but was still working in mid-town.  Anne and I sat down with her for about an hour to get to know each other.  So we made great use of the idle time, after all.

Friday, June 20, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. June 19, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra.  (Seat W105, $68.50.)

Program – The Beethoven Piano Concerts, a Philharmonic Festival
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19 (ca. 1788-1801) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Songs (2014) by Sean Shepherd (b. 1979).
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1796-1803) by Beethoven.

This is the second week of the Philharmonic Festival.  On the menu are two familiar Beethoven concertos (of course one could argue they are all familiar.)

In describing tonight’s program, Gilbert talks about discovering new things in Beethoven’s music.  For me, Beethoven’s music is always enjoyable, although I am still puzzled by the different reactions I get when listening to his work as opposed to contemporary work.

Tonight’s program is a good example.  While I “get” Beethoven, I have never found his music simple – the texture, the dynamics, the virtuosity it requires of its performers.  However, paired with the works by Cheung last week and Shepherd this week, the four piano concertos sounded downright simple.  Complexity comprehension and sense of aesthetics are interesting aspects of the human mind.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me simply say that the “simple” concertos still sounded great with Bronfman at the piano and Gilbert on the podium.  The two interacted seamlessly and effortlessly.  I especially like the dynamic range in the playing, although I would like to hear a louder piano (this may be due to where we were seated.)

I had been remarking how the New York Philharmonic audience had a tendency to applaud after each movement.  Actually they didn’t do it for the first three concertos performed in this Festival.  One could sense an urge to do so, though.  They couldn’t resist after the first movement of No. 3.  I can’t really blame them: it was simply a well-told story.  To me it could well have been Emmanuel Ax – for whom I have the highest regard as an artist – at the piano.

I was initially puzzled by the Playbill’s characterization of the third concerto as the first one that sounds like “fully mature Beethoven.”  After listening to it, I agree.  So even this dense person got to understand something new, after all.

The piece by Shepherd is again commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.  Shepherd got his education at Indiana, Julliard, and Cornell, where he did his doctoral work with Roberto Sierra and Steven Stucky.  As he did with Cheung last week, Gilbert had a short interview with Shepherd while the stage was being set up.  What I got out from it was that this is in some sense a palindromic piece designed to fit in between the two Beethoven concertos.  Gilbert further explained that the tempo starts slow, speeds up, and slows down again at the end.

As with the Cheung piece last week, the composition calls for a complex orchestra, with a huge number of percussion instruments, some quite bizarre (such as cabasa, small egg shaker.)  Both Anne and I agree tonight’s piece sounded a lot more interesting than last week’s.  Even though the idea was for the music to get back to where it started, the journey took us somewhere.

Paraphrasing from the Playbill, the piece is structured rather like a song cycle with interconnected movements, with seven episodes suggesting the terrain through which the piece passes: “The Fair,” “The Chapel,” “The Cradle,” “The Cavern,” “The Nursery,” “The Courtyard,” and “The Meadow.”  I would be lying if I say I got them, that’s even with Gilbert and Shepherd providing some listening tips during their short chat.

I am looking forward to next weeks performance of the Emperor and Triple.

The New York Times reviewer liked the third concerto and the Shepherd piece, but was lukewarm towards the first.  I also found another review (at that panned both concertos, using the word “lackadaisical” to describe the Philharmonic, and complaining that there was no “brio” in the music.  There were a few good words on the Shepherd piece, though.

This summer traffic is getting annoying.  At least by leaving at 4:30 pm, we found off-street parking and time for a relatively leisurely meal at East Szechuan.

Friday, June 13, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. June 12, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra.  (Seat Q114, $68.50.)

Program – The Beethoven Piano Concerts, a Philharmonic Festival
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (ca. 1795/1800) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Lyra (2013) by Anthony Cheung (b. 1982).
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) by Beethoven.

Over the course of three weeks, Gilbert and Bronfman will go through all of Beethoven’s piano concertos.  On each of the first two programs will be a world premiere of a composition commissioned by the Philharmonic.  The third week will feature Glen Dicterow and Carter Brey in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.  We have tickets to all three weeks.

Beethoven’s piano concertos, when played well, are always enjoyable.  Today’s two are no exception.  We have heard Bronfman on multiple occasions before, mostly performing more virtuoso pieces (Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, for instance.)  While the Beethoven concertos surely present their set of challenges, I am sure they are more modest in terms of technical challenges, despite the chromatic runs that take make one hold his breath.  If I remember correctly, Bronfman tends to be quite exaggerated in his movements, often times lifting himself from the bench as he pounded chords out of the keyboard.  Tonight he was considerably more subdued, and instead let the music flow effortlessly from his fingers.

It is interesting to contrast the much more complex fourth concerto with the (close-to) Mozartean first.  (Many think the first (Op. 15) was probably written after the chronologically first piano concerto written by Beethoven.)  The cadenzas, written by Beethoven, require a high level of proficiency.  I don’t remember the one for No. 1 was this long, though.

Sandwiched between the two concertos was the work by Cheung.  The description was certainly quite interesting, with words and phrases like “Orpheus’s lyre,” “Beethoven 4th’s opening chord,” “instruments tuned a quarter-tone below others,” and “tapestry of luxury.”  Whoever managed to use these phrases in an essay has a much better command of the language than I have.  Cheung’s credentials certainly was impressive: Harvard undergraduate, doctorate from Columbia, and now teaching at University of Chicago.  He was one of the four that Henri Dutilleux to whom distributed prize money the latter won.  The piece is dedicated to Dutilleux’s memory.  As the orchestra was setting up, Gilbert had a short dialog with Cheung that further piqued my interest: there is recorded sound (music?) towards the end that starts as puzzling to the listener but ultimately ties everything together.  Cheung indicated that he researched many prior Orpheus music (Monteverdi, Gluck, and Stravinsky.) He also mentioned (nonchalantly, it would appear) that the audience from the day before seemed to enjoy it.

Cheung can either be a Chinese (Cantonese) or Korean surname.  Anne’s remark is no Cantonese can be that good.  (She was kidding, and we are both Cantonese.)  I couldn’t offer any counter-examples with the possible exception of myself (again kidding.)

The Playbill says the music is about 10 minutes long, but Gilbert announced that it was close to 20 minutes.

What do I think of the piece?  It certainly is interesting.  One regret I have was not having read the Playbill ahead of time so I could remind myself what Beethoven’s concerto sounded like.  With Lyra performed before the concerto, I couldn’t tell at all what the reference was.  The music is generally quite complex, oftentimes players in the same section appeared to be playing different notes.  The list of percussion instruments is long, with many instruments I hadn’t seen before: Thai gongs, sizzle cymbal, spring coil, suspended cymbals, low gongs, low log drums, and large metal sheet.  Too bad our seats did not offer a good view of the stage.  However, the music felt like a Brownian motion: lots of activities without noticeably moving forward; a complex case of Philip Glass, if I may.  When it was over, there was polite applause but certainly not quite what Gilbert's remark would lead one to expect.  I told Anne I was glad Cheung is Korean.

I met up with CS during intermission and talked a bit about Lyra.  He asked me if I could write music like that, I said no, but I could probably play it as anything resembling what he wrote would be okay.  (Actually some passages look quite complex, so if I could play it, it would be with a lot of practice.)  And he told me Cheung is of Chinese descent; oh well.  And to have your composition commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic probably is as good as it gets, and something to be greatly admired.

Here is the New York Times review.  The reviewer liked Bronfman’s playing, and had good things to say about the Cheung piece.

Traffic was again bad going into the city, but we got there in time to find off-street parking and to get takeout food from Europan. The concert was a bit long, and when we got to the Thomas Edison Rest Area on the Turnpike, only Burger King was open.

American Ballet Theatre. Prokofiev’s Cinderella. June 11, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony.  (Seat C5, $55).

Choreography by Frederick Ashton, Set and costume design by David Walker.

Conductor – Charles Barker; Cinderella – Xiomara Reyes, The Prince – Joseph Gorak, Step-sisters – Kenneth Easter and Thomas Forster, The Fairy Godmother – Devon Teuscher.

Last month I heard the New York Philharmonic perform a selection of music from Prokofiev’s Cinderella, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.  My remarks were the music was nice enough, but it was mostly flat and lacking in dramatic elements.  That encounter raised my interest in the ABT’s production.  While my interest in ballet is at best lukewarm, I was wondering if seeing the whole production would make the experience more compelling.

In two words, it did.

Actually with dancers on stage the music became mostly accompaniment.  To the extent I noticed it, the orchestra put in a great performance.  The most dramatic passage was again the clock ticking and the chimes ringing towards midnight.  With the visual effect, the music just came to life.

The Playbill contains an article on the choreography.  It was done by Ashton a short four years after Prokofiev wrote the music in 1944.   For various reasons (mostly artists’ egos, in my judgment,) this is the first time the choreography is adopted by the ABT.  To me it didn’t look dated at all.  It requires a lot of physicality from the dancers, and contains many elegant patterns and formations.

In reading over the roster, I was surprised to see that Gorak is “only” a member of the Corps de ballet (the higher categories are Principal and Soloist).  That must make him a rising star in the company.  Not that I am in any position to judge, but to me that would be well-deserved.  One could make a case he failed to nail a step here or there, but overall he was a believable prince.  That Reyes is petite (more petite than your typical ballerina) probably made all the lifting Gorak had to do easier.  The two worked well together, and the pas de deux in Act II is as “fairy-tale” as one can expect.  In addition, much athleticism is required of both dancers; in particular, Reyes had to dance around the stage, putting in about 40 spins in the process.

The roles of the step-sisters are traditionally performed by men.  As in the Rossini opera, they provide a comedic element to the story.  The Fairy Godmother is another substantial role.

The plot here hews closely to the version I am familiar with.  The exceptions would be the star fairies and the four season fairies.  I guess adding these roles make for more interesting visual effects.  And there was magic, at least attempts at it, including a beggar transforming into the Fairy Godmother and a pumpkin turning into a coach.  For Cinderella turning back into a village girl at midnight, even though we didn’t see it, we are sure they just had two people on stage at the same time.

So in the recent past I have seen Rossini’s opera Cenerentola, Jurowski’s selection for the orchestra, and the ballet as Prokofiev first imagined it.  If asked which version I prefer, my answer would be the opera.  However, as a general recommendation, I find to my surprise that I would recommend the ballet.

The lengthy New York Times review actually makes for rather interesting reading, providing a good analysis of the history, the performers (it was a different cast), as well as the reviewer’s opinion on many different aspects of the performance.  And it’s amply clear the ballet world has its very own lexicon. I couldn’t tell if the reviewer at the end enjoyed the performance, though.

Early on the day of performance, the ABT website (technically the metopera website) showed quite a few empty seats.  So we basically drove in, expecting to buy tickets at a discount at the Atrium.  ABT, unfortunately, is not in the program, so we ended up buying tickets at full price.  The performance was not well-attended at all, with over half of the seats in the balcony and the family circle unoccupied.

Anne had a class in Atlantic Highlands and we left there at 5:15 pm or so.  Traffic was heavy, we got into town close to 7 pm; I couldn’t find off-street parking so I put my car in the garage, which I hadn’t done for a while.  Anne and I shared a wrap bought at Avery Fisher, and we got some food off a street-vendor on the way back.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Budapest Festival Orchestra – Ivan Fischer, conductor; Garrick Ohlsson, piano. June 1, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat DD104, $63.50).

All Dvorak (1841-1904) Program
Slavonic Dances, Op. 72 (1886-87) Nos. 2 and 1
Piano Concerto in G minor (1876)
Legend No. 6 (1881)
Symphony No. 8 in G major (1889)

If I remember correctly, these tickets were bought during last year’s Thanksgiving sale.  Meanwhile, our church scheduled a Benefits Concert that Anne had to help organize, so she couldn’t come.  CS agreed to come and offered to do the driving.

The program, a combination of the “popular” and the “intellectual,” largely lived up to its promise.  I think it is a great tribute to Fischer and the musicians that an orchestra that started 30 or so years ago now enjoys the reputation it does.

Each of the halves begins with a short lyrical piece that is typically Dvorak.  The Slavonic dances (No. 2. Starodavny; No. 1. Odzernek) are quite popular and pleasant.  Legend is much softer and simpler-sounding than the dances, but equally pleasant.  All three were initially written as four-hand piano pieces and orchestrated by Dvorak later.

Dvorak’s piano concerto is seldom played.  Actually CS’s reaction when I told him about the program was “I didn’t know Dvorak had a piano concerto.”  And his daughter has a doctoral degree in piano performance from Julliard!  One thing about virtuoso techniques that I don’t quite understand is what used to be considered unplayable pieces are now routinely performed.  Many violin concertos fall into that category: Tchaikovsky and Brahms are examples.  It is not like sports where modern techniques can be used to improve posture and nutrition (maybe it is but is kept a secret?)  Not being a pianist, this concerto didn’t look all that different from other difficult ones I have seen performed.  In any case, Ohlsson made it look quite easy.

What was unexpected was the piece didn’t seem to want to go anywhere.  Much of it felt fragmentary, incidental, and seemed only to loiter about.  It was like Dvorak was putting together his individual ideas but failed to make a comprehensive statement out of them.  To the reader who thinks I am nit-picking again, I say this: the sentiments are that of Brahms’ as quoted in the Playbill (slightly edited).  Indeed individual passages or sections sounded quite good, but I couldn’t quite anticipate, nor could I understand, where the music was going next.

Ohlsson played an encore.  I am sure it was a Brahms Intermezzo.  CS was duly impressed when I told him that.  The reason I know is because this was music I happened to study when I was in high school.  Hearing it played well and looking at it as a music score are rather different experiences.

I remember being unpleasantly surprised when I heard Dvorak’s Eighth recently.  I didn’t remember which orchestra played it, so I told CS it might have been the New York Philharmonic.  In any case, today’s experience was completely different.  The symphony was as enjoyable as any other Dvorak composition I have heard (well, there is the New World Symphony, and the string serenade.)  I think Fischer just told a better story.  And – drum roll – I actually had so-so encounters of this symphony played by the NJSO and the NY Phil.

It was overall a good experience.  Interestingly I just got the Great Performers tickets I bought for the following season, and I noticed that one of them is Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra.  I feel ambivalent about it, so I probably should temper my assessment somewhat.

We left Middletown at about 1 pm, hoping to catch lunch in Manhattan.  A bus breakdown right at Exit 16E caused such a delay that I only had time to gulp down a sandwich bought at Avery Fisher Hall.  The return trip was quite smooth by comparison, even though there was congestion getting to Lincoln Tunnel.

Monday, June 02, 2014

New Jersey Symphony – Jacques Lacombe, conductor; James Ehnes, violin. May 31, 2014.

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank.  Balcony Center (Seat J104, $29.)

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40 (1898) by Strauss (1864-1949).

There is now no doubt in my mind.  New Jersey Symphony is a much better orchestra under Lacombe.  Tonight’s performance was totally enjoyable.

I am sure I have made similar remarks before.  One summer during graduate school Anne (then my girlfriend) was visiting from California, and we heard the Beethoven violin concerto over and over again.  Even though having a small record collection might have been a reason for the repetition, that recording of David Oistrakh became for me the definitive way the concerto should be played.  I am quite sure my recollection is not accurate, but in my mind I am clear what a great performance of the concerto will sound like.

Other than a slight intonation problem here or there, Ehnes met all my expectations.  The tone from his 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius was clean, and he made it sing in a most enjoyable way.  From where I sat, the balance between the soloist and the orchestra was just perfect.  The orchestra has its own statements to make, sometimes together with, often times apart from, the soloist.  But neither party overwhelmed the other: an easy accomplishment with an engineered recording, not so easy in a live concert.

It was just beautifully done.

I last heard the Strauss piece played by the New York Philharmonic in December 2013 and remember walking away not particularly impressed one way or another.  Today’s experience was much much better.

A particular standout was how the concertmaster Eric Wyrick played the solo lines in the Hero’s Companion section.  It was so much clearer and cleaner than the way it was done by Glen Dicterow.  I did worry a bit if Wyrick was going to make any mistakes; he didn’t as far as I could tell.  Lacombe asked for, and got, a huge dynamic range from the orchestra, which made the story behind the tone poem come to life.

Interestingly, the Program Notes also speaks to the fact Strauss wrote this about himself when he was only 34 (he lived to be 75.)  The annotator took all that with a grain of salt, attributing the idea behind Strauss’s reverence for Beethoven and the music’s satirical nature (portraying his wife Pauline as a quick-tempered person and his critics in an unflattering light, for instance.)

I got two tickets for this concert at a discount.  Anne couldn’t go because she had to babysit Reid, so I was hoping someone would be asking for a ticket at the venue.  Turns out the concert had many empty seats – the balcony section wasn’t even half full – which was just too bad.  Also, there was more of a tendency for the audience to whisper among themselves during a performance.  I am beginning to feel the same way I do about the Hong Kong Philharmonic – the orchestra deserves a better audience.

I found this review in, the reviewer saw the performance on May 30.  He had a lot of good things to say about the performance, which I agree with.  His description of the tone poem is particularly interesting and informative.  Reading the headlines of some of his reviews, he appears to be a fan of the NJSO, and his reviews are all examples of the “it’s all great” category.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Benefit Concert at the Chinese America Bible Church of New Jersey

CABCNJ, Gibson Place, Freehold, NJ

Ling-Jun Liu
Shane Wu

Our friend Don and Agnes found out about this church and this concert, and I decided to tag along to have a look.  The church uses an old office building, its main sanctuary seats about 150.  Unfortunately for tonight perhaps 30 or so people showed up.  They will tour several local churches, lets hope the attendance ends up being better.

Liu was born in Shanghai, spent some time in Hong Kong, and did her voice training in Taiwan.  She worked mostly as a cabaret singer in the 70s but emigrated to Canada quite early in her career.  She was baptized in 2002 and has since been using her voice as a ministry.  She didn't hesitate to let the audience know that she turned 60 this year.  Shane Wu is a young minister who - per Liu - can sing, can play the piano, and can preach.

The songs sung in the evening were mostly Christian Pop (Chinese), with a couple written by Liu.  She used mostly pre-recorded band accompaniment, with Wu providing piano accompaniment for one of the songs.  This concert was meant to be evangelistic in nature, but I think everyone who attended was already a Christian.

Since Ellie was visiting that evening, and the program started late, I rushed out of there right afterwards.  In exchange for a modest contribution I got a couple of her CDs.

Flyer for the concert.