Sunday, August 24, 2014

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Louis Langree, conductor; Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin. August 23, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra Left (Seat W5, $88.50).

Susanna Phillips, soprano; Kelly O’Connor, mezzo-soprano; Dimitri Pittas, tenor; Morris Robinson, bass.
Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell, director.

Polyptyque: Six Images of the Passion of Christ (1973) by Frank Martin (1890-1974).
Chorales from St. John Passion (1724) by Bach.
Requiem, K.626 (1791) by Mozart.

Tonight’s was the last concert for this season’s M|M Festival.  Anne is in Brazil, so she can’t go.  CS also bought a ticket to the event, so we went up together in his car.  We had dinner at the Hunan restaurant Legend on 72nd.  I also had time to exchange some of the tickets for the upcoming opera season.  (Out of the series of 7 operas, I may end up exchanging tickets for 6 of them; such are the perils of committing early.  Today I did three.)

The program certainly held a lot of promise.  And it has Langree’s fingerprints all over it.  The piece by Martin was commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the UNESCO-founded International Music Council.  It is for the solo violin, with a double string orchestra.  A similar arrangement (although it was with two “complete” orchestras) was used in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  Naturally the chorales used for today are from Bach’s other passion: St. John’s.  What Langree did was to put a “relevant” chorale between pairs of Martin’s movements.  This results in the following structure for the first half of the concert:

Image de Rameaux
*Chorale: O grosse Lieb
Image de la Chambre haute
*Chorale: Ach grosser Koenig
Image de Judas
*Chorale: Wer hat dich so geschlagen
Image de Gethsemane
*Chorale: In meines Herzens Grunde
Image du Jugement
*Chorale: Durch dein Gefangnis, Gottes Sohn
Image de la Glorfication

Per Wikipedia, Kopatchinskaja was born in Moldova in 1977.  The violin she plays – an 1834 Pressenda – makes a good but not brilliant sound.  Against a smallish orchestra (actually two smallish orchestras) it worked quite well.  The description in the Playbill (by David Wright) was quite easy to follow, and the sentiments are consistent with the titles of the movements.  One exception is Judas, instead of sinister (Wright describes it as “seethes with barely contained malevolence”) it sounded comical.  I imagine I would have found the piece enjoyable if I had listened to it as one integrated piece; I can’t imagine I would put it on the same level as Bach’s Chaconne, as Menuhin apparently did after premiering it in 1973.

Unfortunately I didn’t listen to the piece as a whole.  Instead it was interrupted again and again by the chorales from St. John’s Passion.  (Some would say Bach's chorales kept being interrupted by Martin.) The idea has some merit to it, but in practice it didn’t work for me at all.  If Langree wanted to incorporate some chorales into the program, perhaps he should have done them on a stand-alone basis.  For me that would make the contrast more apparent, instead of making both parts sound disjoint.

It is a pity that these are the thoughts that stay with me after a day (I am writing this review about 24 hours after the concert.)

When I wrote the review on the Salzburg concert I went to last month, I remarked that it was my first encounter with Mozart’s sacred music.  That was an erroneous statement: I had heard the Requiem before at a New York Philharmonic open rehearsal, in November, 2013.

My reaction to the New York Philharmonic rehearsal was very positive, with me conjecturing that the actual concert would sound “great.”  Tonight’s was a good performance, for sure, but I must say it was nowhere near “great.”  Both the orchestra and the chorale sounded somewhat stretched, the music probably challenged their technical and musical ability: the high notes were a tad too high, the precision in the instruments wasn’t quite there, and balance was somewhat lacking.

The chorale consists of about 45 members.  I saw a couple of women among the men, CS thought men and women seemed to be randomly placed.  If that is so, it must be a great challenge for the conductor.  The four soloists all had good and strong voices, but they didn’t seem to work together, leaving me with the impression they were trying to outdo one another.  Interestingly they were situated between the orchestra and the chorale.

Mozart died with much of the work unfinished.  While a version was soon published with the “blanks” filled in by Mozart’s pupils, with Xaver Sussmayr doing the bulk of the work, performers often have felt free to modify the work to suit their taste.  Langree did that.  I don’t know if it is because of that, or because of the way it was performed, the music didn’t come across as particularly sacred, or requiemesque (if there is such a word.)  Of course the text helped remind me what it was.

The applause afterwards was thunderous and prolonged, and many roses were presented to the soloists, the orchestra members, and the conductor.  I assume this is the audience showing appreciation at the end of the Festival.  These guys put out 10 different programs over the course of 5 weeks, a challenging deed by any measure.

I managed to attend four of the concerts, and am glad I went.  This is a music festival, after all.  New York Times published an online review a few hours ago; the reviewer couldn't quite bring himself around to say "it was a great concert" either.  He provided one example of how Langree modified the Requiem.

Traffic home was quite smooth also.  I got home a bit after 11 pm.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Louis Langree, conductor; Magali Mosnier, flute; Xavier de Maistre, harp. August 15, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra Right (Seat P12, $39.50).

Dance of the Furies, from Orphee et Eurydice (1774) by Christoph Gluck (1714-1787).
Concerto in C major for flute and harp, K.299 (1778) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphonie fantastique (1830) by Berlioz (1803-1869).

M|M always wants to squeeze in a lot of music into each of their programs.  Tonight’s was no exception: the three pieces were 4 minutes, 30 minutes, and 55 minutes in duration.  With an on-time start, and a short intermission, all that was done in 2 hours, quite a logistics feat.

I am ahead of myself.  In any case, the afternoon started with our leaving the house at about 4:30 pm.  Traffic on Westside Highway was bad until we reached Lincoln Tunnel, so the trip took about 1 ½ hours.  We did find parking on 65th, and managed a leisurely meal at East Szechuan.

We got to Avery Fisher Hall at about 6:45 pm for the pre-concert recital.  Well, there was no recital today, instead there was a talk on Symphonie fantastique that started at 6:45 pm.  We made our way to The Rose Building, and managed to find seats in the rather crowded auditorium.  Even though I was fighting jetlag (having returned the day before,) I still learned quite a few new things about the composition.  The speaker fumbled a bit with the audio cues, but still managed to get his points across.  I will come back to this in the section on Berlioz.

The one aria I know from Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice is “J’ai Perdu Mon Eurydice.”  Thus I was a bit disappointed that wasn’t the selection.  Come to think of it, it was unlikely an aria would be chosen for an orchestral performance.  Indeed, the selection with the Furies (demons?) trying to scare Orpheus away is as good as any.  The short piece was enjoyable, with some brass instruments placed in the second tier, and I was amazed at how different Gluck and Mozart sounded even though they were contemporaries (well, Gluck was born 40 some years earlier.)  In doing some background research on this blog entry, I listened to Callas’s rendition of the aria (exquisite), and a performance of the Dance by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.  I must say the youtube performance is more along the lines of what I thought Gluck’s music should sound like: there is a continuo part in it.

Per the program notes (written by Hugh MacDonald,) Mozart may have started to write a flute concerto and a harp concerto for Count Guines and his daughter, who were quite proficient at their respective instrument.  The end result was a delightful concerto for flute and harp which was quite enjoyable.  Not being a player of either instrument, I can’t tell the degree of virtuosity required in the musicians (perhaps Ellie, who took lessons in both, can shed some light on the subject.)  What I could tell was the flutist and the harpist both seemed to have a lot of fun with it.  Again quoting from the annotation, “Brilliance, sentiment, and courtly gallantry are all found in this concerto, a fair reflection of the qualities Mozart felt, with some scorn, to be the predominant features of Parisian society.”  So Mozart may not have been particular fond of the circumstances under which he composed this music, but for an M|M evening it worked very well.

I have always been amazed how one single flute or a single harp can be clearly heard in an orchestra, even a large one, thus it was surprising that both solo instruments sounded a bit weak tonight.  Not so weak that I had to strain to hear them, but not strong enough that they sounded as equal partners to the orchestra.  De Maistre is one of the few men that play the harp, and he naturally was picked up by the Vienna Philharmonic.  (For the confused reader, the Vienna Philharmonic was an all-male ensemble until recently.  The first female member was a harpist.)  Both soloists are French musicians.

The movements of the concerto are Allegro, Andantino, and Rondo: Allegro.  The cadenzas were by Sylvain Blassel.

Despite having heard Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique live only once, I had considered myself reasonably familiar with the piece.  Be that as it may, tonight’s lecture added a lot to my understanding of the music.  While the Program Notes has a more detailed and somewhat different account of the storyline behind the music, the real insight I picked up was the image of “the beloved” as represented in the theme (idée fixe, obsession) used throughout the composition.  Also, in the fifth movement, the plain-chant Dies irae was used to great (and grotesque) effect.  The Symphony was completed in a short three months, although Berlioz used a lot of material he had planned for other works (e.g., The Ball was originally intended for Romeo and Juliet.)  One more piece of information: the harp was used for the first time in a symphonic work.

Idee fixe (obsession) used throughout Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique.

Dies irae (Days of Wrath).

Given the usual size of the M|M Festival Orchestra, many extras were used in the performance of this large-scale work.  There was a fourth double bass and large percussion and woodwind contingents.  Most web entries mention the use of two harps, here we have four.  Interestingly, all their names are listed in the roster for the evening.

Before I go into any specifics, I must say I enjoyed it.  Being always on the lookout for the theme was interesting, seeing how the oboe (or was it the English Horn) leave to play off-stage was interesting, listening to the church bells was interesting; and the orchestra put in a spirited performance.

Interesting and spirited do not a great performance made.  And this was by no means a great performance.  While an additional string player was added here and there, the string sections were simply too small to hold their own against the orchestra’s other sections.  I felt particularly bad for the cellists who despite pounding away at their instruments simply couldn’t produce loud enough a sound.  I had this complaint before, but the violin sections seemed to be dominated by a few players.  On the other hand, I appreciated how coherent, urgent, and despondent the music sounded.

It is worth repeating the movements of the Symphony: (i) Reveries – Passions: Largo – Allegro agitato e appassionato assai; (ii) Un Bal: Valse: Allegro non troppo; (iii) Scene aux champs: Adagio; (iv) Marche au supplice: Allegretto non troppo; and (v) Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat: Larghetto – Allegro.

As with other M|M concerts, tonight's made for a satisfactory summer concert experience, and that is good enough for me.

Tonight’s tickets were purchased at a discount via Goldstar.  Anne will be out of town next weekend, and I wanted to get a ticket to the last series for this season, with Mozart’s Requiem on the program.  I checked the Lincoln Center website and saw that not too many good seats are left, so I bought a $85 ticket at the box office when I picked up the tickets for tonight.  I just bought a series of tickets to New York Philharmonic’s new season, each of them costs “only” $64.50!

Our drive home was as smooth as it could be, we got back before 11 pm.

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Louis Langree, conductor; Christian Tetzlaff, violin. August 5, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Z114, $39.50).

Moz-Art a la Haydn (1977) by Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).
Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major, K. 207 (1773) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Overture to L’isola disabitata, Hob.Ia.13 (1779) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Symphony No. 38 in D major, K.504 (“Prague”) (1786) by Mozart.

Recently there is an Apple Computer ad on TV “starring” Esa-Pekka Salonen.  It follows how he started with a fragment of a tune and ends with a violin concerto performed by Leila Josefowicz.  Using an iPad, of course.  That may or may not sell an iPad, but certainly illustrated how a contemporary composer may go about his work.

Still, oftentimes I wonder what a composer is trying to say with a particular piece.  I get even more cynical when a supposedly clever title is concocted.  Tonight’s Schnittke piece belongs in that category.  Actually I began with a rather open mind, as the notes (written by Paul Schiavo) made the composition sound intriguing.  At the end of the day, it was modern music with snippets of Mozart melodies buried in it.  Perhaps realizing that there isn’t much there, the composer put in requests that the players (about 14 of them) move about on stage, and that they leave one by one at the end of the piece.  That is supposed to be inspired by Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, I was ready to hum the tune form The Sound of Music.

Two violinists (Concertmaster Ruggero Allifranchini and Principal Laura Frautschi) had lead roles in the music.  There was an annoying hum at the beginning: I just couldn’t tell if it came in from the street or was intentional.

One would think this is how a disaster unfolds.  But I had faith in the rest of the program, in the conductor, and in the soloist.  My faith was rewarded.

Mozart’s violin concertos were standard fare for the violin student, at least when I was one decades ago.  They may present a challenge, but most could put together an decent sounding performance.  Helped by the passage of time, I am sure that is what I did.

A little while back, I was dismayed to learn that all Mozart’s five violin concertos were written before he turned 19 (considered the immature period,) and he was 17 when he completed the first one.  Simply put, it sounded very mature tonight.

Tetzlaff and Langree wove together a beautiful rendition of the piece.  I remarked in my Salzburg Festival blog that I like Mozart light and crisp, and it was light and crisp today.  Tetzlaff’s lines were smooth, runs flawless, technique exquisite, and interpretation inspiring.  There are many ways to interpret Mozart, and this is as good as any.  Tetzlaff played his own encores, but they sounded like they belong in the original composition.

That’s what a Mostly Mozart Festival experience should feel like.

The three movements of the Concerto are Allegro moderato, Adagio, and Presto.

After a couple of curtain calls, he played a encore.  It sounded familiar, but unfortunately I couldn’t place it.  I have to say the real effect of the encore was to get me to look at my watch again and again as I had a 10:18 pm train to catch.  (The next one is an hour later.)

Perhaps everyone was trying to keep to a schedule, so the intermission was relatively short at about 20 minutes.

If I am asked to name a Haydn opera, I won’t be able to.  Evidently he wrote quite a few, mostly for his patron Prince Esterhazy; that they are seldom performed today is attributed to their old-fashioned librettos.  I am paraphrasing Playbill without knowing what it means.  It also says the prelude performed this evening is great symphonic writing, and is popular to this day.  Naturally, this was the first time I heard of it.

Given the opera storyline in the Playbill, and its description of the 8 minute piece, it was quite easy to follow along.  And in this case there was truth in advertisement.  Overall a delightful piece of music, and because of it I might go see a Haydn opera if there is a chance to do so.  I have expressed several times my opinion of Handel’s operas in this blog, how much worse can it be?  (I know I enjoyed Julius Caesar.)

If one thinks about it, the world of Salzburg and Mostly Mozart must collide at some point.  And in this instance it did, as the Prague Symphony.  I heard this performed by the Mozarteumorcher less than two weeks ago, with Honeck conducting.

Had I known this, I would have jotted down more notes in Salzburg: I love the opportunity to compare how different artists interpret the same things.

Like the entire program itself, the symphony didn’t start all that auspiciously.  It just didn’t sound like everyone was on the same page when the playing first started.  However, things improved as the first movement went along.  There was one noticeable flaw: the transitions from one motif to another sounded grafted and abrupt; I remember them as natural in the Salzburg performance.  Despite all that, I was still impressed with how the movement was performed.  Thus it was unfortunate that the second and third movements were not played as well: the second movement sounded dry, and the orchestra muddled through some of the faster runs in the third.

So far this blog has affirmed many of my clichés (e.g., liking Mozart light and crisp.)  Here is another one: I can’t tell a great Mozart performance from a good one.  Tonight I can: overall, I am sure this is a good performance.  Nothing wrong with it though, I come to M|M concerts to relax, not to do heavy intellectual exercises.

The program concluded at around 9:55 pm.  The gentleman sitting next to me also wanted to leave early, so I used him as a blocker to leave the auditorium.  I got to Penn Station at about 10:05 pm, so I could have stayed for a couple of extra minutes.  Anne picked me up at the train station.

Mostly Mozart Festival Pre-concert Recital. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Caroline Goulding, violin. August 5, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Center, free).

Sonata for two violins in D major, Op. 3, No. 6 (1730) by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764).
Selections from Forty-four Duos for two violins, BB 104 (1931) by Bartok (1881-1945).

Anne had a class tonight, so I was on my own.  I took the 5:25 pm train which got into New York about 10 minutes late at 6:35 pm.  With a good subway connection, I managed to pick up my ticket for the evening and got into the auditorium with 7 minutes to spare.

The pre-concert program consists of two short pieces.  The Playbill has a short annotation of Leclair’s work.  The most interesting part unfortunately was that he was murdered, probably by his nephew who was also a violinist.

The sonata was short (even shorter than the advertised 12 minutes,) yet consists of four movements: Andante, Allegro, Largo, and Allegro ma non-troppo.  The Playbill annotation made the music quite easy to understand.  It was a delight, and contains some rather challenging passages (the composer was a violinist, after all.)

Someone asked Bartok for permission to transcribe some of his piano compositions into duets for violins.  Bartok countered by writing 44 duets, with most of them (except 2) based on actual folk tunes.  The six selections - some short, others shorter - totaling 9 minutes of play, are: Transylvanian Dance, No. 44; Fairy Tale, No. 19; Burlesque, No. 16; Sorrow, No. 28; New Year’s Greeting I, No. 21; and Arabian Song, No. 42.  Between the titles and the notes, there was no doubt where things were.  Yet there was some hesitation before the audience applauded at the conclusion.

Here Goulding took the lead.  For me this is characteristically Bartok in that I get it (i.e., I can follow the music,) yet I don’t get it (i.e., not sure where he was trying to say.)  At one level I could dismiss them as simply etudes written for student/teacher recitals, but I suspect there is more to the.

When Goulding and Tetzlaff came on stage, I was surprised at how young she looked.  (She was born in 1992, a search of the web revealed.)  A perusal of the Playbill told me she already has quite a few awards under her belt, and that she is Tetzlaff’s student.  Must be a star student for her to be invited along.  She put in a delightful performance, and seems to command a certain stage presence.  I can see her performing on the big stage at some point.

Tetzlaff is known for playing a violin modeled after a Guarnerius.  Goulding performs on a Stradivarius (General Kyd, ca. 1720.)  So it is doubly amazing that Tetzlaff produced a much richer sound than Goulding did.

In the flurries of activities this afternoon (including preparation for my trip to Hong Kong the next day,) I didn’t get to eat anything before I left the house.  So I bought a half sandwich at Avery Fisher, for $6.50.  I am quite sure they were selling whole sandwiches for $8 each the last time I bought something.

The entries for both the pre-concert and the concert were written inside UA117 (EWR-HKG.)  That may explain the more than usual amount of typing and grammatical mistakes.  (Note: I did some proof-reading before posting this blog on August 16.)

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Andrew Manze, conductor; Steven Osborne, piano. August 1, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat O08, $39.50).

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major ,  Op. 73 (“Emperor”) (1809) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 104 in D major (“London”) (1795) by Haydn (1732-1809).

The Playbill has an interesting observation that both compositions represent the last of the composers in that particular category.  It goes on to imply there is something special about the music.  My first instinct was how can that be?  I can see how a composer would pay special attention to a particular composition (Mozart’s requiem, for instance, is a “definite maybe.”)  However, I am quite sure Beethoven didn’t set out to say “this will be my last piano concerto, so I will do something special about it, and I won’t be able to write anything better than this.”  Neither would Haydn say, “I should stop at this nice round number of 104.”

Now that I have gotten that rant out of the way, let me return to my original intent of going to these concerts.  People should try to take things easy in the summer, and that was the thinking behind my purchasing three concerts to this season’s M|M Festival when discount tickets became available on Goldstar.  Given my original travel plans for July and August, I was happy that I could squeeze them in.  Tonight’s concert is less than a week after we returned from Europe, and I am going to the next one the day before I leave for Hong Kong, and the third one the day I come back.  I was counting on some snoozing time during the concerts, and am happy to report that at least for tonight I stayed fully awake for the whole time.

This was the third time this year that we heard the Emperor Concerto.  And I still enjoyed it.  The annotator David Wright provided some interesting observations on technical details that were quite useful as we followed along.  Particularly insightful was how he described this “stumbling over its own feet getting started” at the beginning of the last movement due to the syncopation.  That and other insightful remarks added a lot to my appreciation of tonight’s performance.

This was Steven Osborne’s debut performance at Mostly Mozart.  We did see him last year, in Singapore, of all places, playing Britten’s piano concerto.  Perhaps it was a case of nerves, there was a little bit of “stumbling” when he started the piece.  A pianist must train himself/herself to delineate the multiple lines in the music, but sometimes I felt his two hands were out of sync.  His performance improved as the music moved along.

Actually I really liked how he played the relatively short second movement.  Slow movements tend to be less challenging technically, and the artists must hold the audience (at least the shallower ones in the crowd, like me) with their musicality.  The way Osborne interpreted it really spoke to me.

The last time I heard this was in late June, with Yefim Bronfman as the soloist.  Both Bronfman and Osborne used a Steinway, and I would venture to guess it was the same instrument.  Interestingly they produced very different sounds.  Bronfman’s was richer, and Osborne had a wider dynamic range.  I wonder if that’s attributable to how they approach the piano, or is it because of the acoustics (our seats, location of piano).

Some readers think I can get too critical in these blogs; and there is much truth to that.  On the other hand, I am not perceptive enough to say I like A for the following reasons, B for this different set, and C yet for this third set of reasons; and they are all great.  I can say, however, I know relatively how well I enjoyed the three performances I have heard so far this year (Orpheus/Tsujii, New York Phlharmonic/Bronfman, and Mostly Mozart/Osborne.)  I leave it to the reader to guess.

I am not even sure I have heard 10 of Haydn’s 104 symphonies.  If I have, I certainly can’t tell you which ones.  One characteristic was that the ones I have heard are all easy to get.  The “London,” however, is quite a bit more complex than anything I remember.  David Wright’s notes again make the music easier to follow and to appreciate.  Well, I do think he goes a bit overboard sometimes, such as comparing the opening 5th and 4th intervals with Beethoven Fifth’s “fate knocking.”  Also, I didn’t quite get the “reluctance in putting down the pen” and the “unprecedented thematic unity,” statement attributed to Haydn’s biographer H. C. Robbins Landon.

The London Symphony was written by Haydn in 1795, while Beethoven started his First around 1799.  It was interesting to note that at (probably) its most complex, Haydn’s symphonies still sound simpler than Beethoven’s earlier symphonies.  There, my contribution to music analysis.

The symphony has four movements: Adagio – Allegro, Andante, Menuet: Allegro, and Finale: Spiritoso.

We saw Andrew Manze at last year’s M|M festival.  I don’t remember the performance well, but remember enjoying it.  (A re-reading of the blog entry confirms it, and that I have seen him on three prior occasions.)  He conducts with quite a bit of motion, often favoring facing the orchestra sideways (from where I sat.)  There were a few precision problems which perhaps is to be expected.  For this evening I was sure he asked the second violins to come in loud.  As someone who played in that section, I appreciate that.  On the other hand, I thought it was a bit much.

Overall, however, tonight was an enjoyable evening.  Anne helped out in Jersey City today, I met up with her at around 4 pm, and we left for New York at around 4:30 pm.  Despite the busy traffic, we still managed to have a leisurely dinner at Legend (a Sichuan restaurant on 72nd.)  It is only when we got to the concert hall that we remembered they had a pre-concert at 7 pm!  We will forgo dinner if necessary next time.  The drive home was straight-forward.