Wednesday, October 29, 2014

New Jersey Symphony – Jacques Lacombe, conductor; Gil Shaham, violin. October 25, 2014.

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, Orchestra (Seat M106, $44).

William Tell Overture (1828-29) by Rossini (1792-1868).
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844) by Mendelssohn (1809-1847).
Symphony in D Minor (1886-88) by Franck (1822-1890).

We got these tickets at Amazon Local.  Great seats for $44 each.  The program is a mix of a popular first half followed by a more serious second half.  I was looking towards it as Lacombe was the conductor; and he has always come through in the past.

While the title of William Tell is well-known, I actually don’t know the story, except Tell was forced to hit an apple sitting on top of his head with his bow and arrow.  I assume the good guys eventually prevailed.  Similarly, even though several of the tunes in the overture are quite well-known (especially the Lone Ranger theme,) I don’t even remember the last time I heard it live, or from a recording for that matter.

It was a delightful way to start the evening.  The overture was longer than I expected at over ten minutes, but it was an enjoyable ten minutes.  I am quite sure it is not a technically or musically very difficult piece, but there is nothing wrong with simply sitting back and enjoying the music.

I carry the same attitude with the Mendelssohn violin concerto.  A diligent musicologist or composer may be able to do a detailed analysis of its form, its significance, and how the work came into being.  But for me it is just a brilliantly written piece of music.  Difficult enough to show off a violinist’s skills, but not so difficult that it is beyond the reach of all but the most virtuoso players.

Given our proximity to the stage, everything sounded great.  Shaham’s violin produced a perfect sound.  He still moved about the stage quite a bit, infringing on the conductor’s and violinists’ space every now and then, but that was not distracting at all.  His technique was flawless, and he just had a great give and take with the orchestra.  He attacked the piece violently enough that I was wondering if the strings would hold up – they did.

Every now and then I got the feeling that this was just a day at the office for him, and there is nothing wrong with that.  He just had the piece down pat so the notes simply rolled from his fingers and the bowing simply came naturally.  These soloists do a few concertos a year, so I am sure this piece got its share of practice.

I know Franck mostly from his ensemble works.  Indeed he wrote only one symphony.  The Playbill notes is a bit unkind to this work, other than saying the second movement is the most successful, most of the commentary is devoted in how the symphony is structured.  The other oddity, so to speak, is that this is a three-movement work: Lento – Allegro non troppo; Allegretto; and Allegro non troppo.

Perhaps I was influenced by the Playbill’s writeup, I found it hard to follow where the music was going.  On top of that, this was an unexpectedly sloppy performance.  At 37 minutes it isn’t particularly long, and I had no problem sitting through it, but I had a lot of trouble following where the music is trying to go.  As I type this review a few days later, I don’t remember any of the themes used in the symphony.

Sometimes I don’t understand how people pick the music for a particular program. 

I was a bit worried that there would be many empty seats in the theater.  While there were some, the attendance was still respectable.  Sitting next to us was a father taking his son to his first concert.  They left after the intermission.

Today was a relatively busy Saturday.  Anne came down with some bug yesterday and wasn’t quite herself yet.  My day started with a drive to Hoboken where Ellie and Kuau ran in a 5K race, and I had to watch Reid for all of 40 or so minutes.  That turned out to be easier than expected as the kid was asleep the whole time.  I also had a church meeting to attend from 3 to 6 pm, after which I drove home and picked Anne up for the concert.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. October 24, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra T106 ($61.50).

Piano Concerto No. 3, BB 127 (1945) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1887/1890, ed. Nowak 1955/94) by Bruckner (1824-96).

For us, this is the first New York Philharmonic concert this season.  The tickets were bought with an eClub discount offer; for $59 a ticket we got excellent seats.  On the other hand, I am slightly worried that discounts were already needed to fill the hall so early in the season, and with a popular artist at that.

I didn’t give the program a lot of scrutiny before deciding to buy the tickets.  If I had been a bit more diligent, I would have discovered that we heard the most recent Philharmonic performances of both pieces (Bartok in April, 2014 and Bruckner in January, 2012.)  And to top that off, the last New York Philharmonic concert we saw also had Gilbert and Bronfman collaborating.  (Dicterow and Bray were also on tap at that farewell series.)  Had I noticed those factors, I would have saved the time and money for another concert: there is so much I haven’t heard.  It is a good thing I didn’t though; I would have missed a very delightful evening of music.

Perhaps the eClub and other discount offers did the trick, to my relief the auditorium was quite full.

I didn’t quite get the Bartok piece the last time I saw it with Peter Serkin at the piano and Pablo Heras-Casado conducting (and we saw Heras-Casado just a week before, speaking of the recycling theme.)  My reaction to that performance was at best lukewarm, and that because of his family name.  Tonight’s was a completely different performance.  Bronfman’s playing gripped the audience at the very beginning and was thrilling till the last note.  What I remembered as muddled and uninspired playing became crisp and spirited.  Since Bronfman was around a lot the last couple of seasons, he and Gilbert worked together very well, each supporting and urging the other along.

I had a lot of good things to say about the Bruckner performance led by Zubin Mehta.  I recall my reaction as being very positive, although a re-reading of the blog entry didn’t confirm that recollection.  A CD I bought since has been in my car for a long time.  During our driving trips, whenever we find ourselves in a location without good radio access we will turn on the CD, and there it is, all 80 minutes of it.  In other words, we have gotten very familiar with this particular symphony.

With a large scale work like this, nothing beats a live concert.  Especially one that is as well executed as this one.  When I heard this in 2012, I was trying very hard to analyze the music.  Today I just went along for the ride.  If it wants to keep coming back to the same theme, so be it.  If it wants to be very loud, so be it.  (Many musicians had to put on ear plugs, though.)  This is a long composition, played after a full concerto and an intermission, yet it didn’t feel long at all.  And to the artists’ credit, they were as fresh at the end as they had been at the beginning of the Bartok concerto.

Bruckner’s compositions are well-known to have gone through many different alterations after first completion, with many of the changes approved by the composer himself.  One does wonder if this particular theme (or variations thereof) needed to be repeated so often.  Anne tried to keep count, and she thought it was 68 times.  No one tried to cut out a couple of instances of this repetition?

The orchestra has not named a new concertmaster yet, as far as I know.  Apparently they were auditioning for one at this concert.  A young Asian fellow.  He seemed to fit in okay – not that I am in any position to judge – but perhaps he moved more like a soloist.  Speaking of personnel changes, there are quite a few changes to the roster.  The Ginsbergs (with the husband being the principal second violin) retired, so there are a couple of openings there.  Orin O’Brien is now part of the regular rotation (a demotion?).  Joshua Weilerstein left his post as assistant conductor, in his place is Courtney Lewis.  Those were known or at least not unexpected.  Most interestingly, Gilbert seems to have lost his chair.  Oh the palace intrigue.

Anne was not feeling well (we later decided it was stomach flu).  After a quick dinner at Europan where she had only soup, we bought pre-concert talk tickets.  She couldn’t make it as she thought she might black out, so I went by myself.  The speaker Mark Travis, the orchestra’s “in-house producer,” probably was a last minute substitute for the scheduled speaker.  His talk was not particularly insightful (on a good day I might come close,) but he did remind me Bruckner and Brahms were contemporaries and to a certain extent rivals.  As a young music student I learned the 3 B’s: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  If Bruckner had written a wider variety of music, it could have been Bach, Beethoven, and Bruckner!

When this season was announced way back when, I lamented that it didn’t look as exciting as some prior seasons.  Actually with our rather busy travel schedule this year I had to work hard to pick ten concerts for the subscription.  I don’t remember exactly why this concert was not on my original pick list, perhaps it was my crazy travel schedule these two months, or because I thought I had heard the pieces before.  It was good that I still ended up going to this one.  If others are close to this high quality, this will be a great season after all.

The New YorkTimes reviewer spared no word in praise of Bronfman’s performance.  She is a bit more reserved when it came to Bruckner, saying that the performance “left [her] feeling adrift and disengaged.”

Friends of Mozart – Mozart Keyboard Concertos. October 22, 2014.

Christ and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, New York.  Sanctuary. Free (donation).

Concerto in C major, I. 415 (387b), for piano and strings (Vienna, 1782-83) by W. A. Mozart (1756-1791).
Prelude and Fugue in C minor, K. 426, for strings (Vienna, 1783).
Concerto in A major, K. 414 (385p), for piano and strings (Vienna, 1782-83).

Yi-heng Yang, fortepiano.  Theresa Salomon, violin; Amelia Roosevelt, violin; Jessica Troy, viola; Lindy Clarke, cello; Max Zeugner, double bass.

Went by myself on a rainy day – Anne had a class to teach.

During the intermission, one of the Board members asked us to contribute as "pianos don't grow on trees."  I think it is entirely appropriate even though the concert is billed as "free."  I, for one, would love to have a chance to show my appreciation of the artists and the organization, but not to the extent that I want to become a member.  A small donation works for me.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. October 20, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony (Seat C113, $87.50).

Story.  The cruise ship Achille Lauro was hijacked by four Palestinians after it left Alexandria.  The one hostage they killed was Leon Klinghoffer in a wheelchair.  The story is told as a recollection from various people: the captain, the first officer, a grandmother and her grandchild, a Swiss woman who hid in her cabin, and a British Dancer.  After the terrorists disembarked at Cairo, Marilyn Klinghoffer was told of Leon’s death.  The opera ends with Marilyn expressing her sorrow.

Conductor – David Robertson.  The Captain – Paulo Szot, The First Officer – Christopher Feigum, Leon Klinghoffer – Alan Opie, Marilyn Klinghoffer – Michaela Martens, Swiss Grandmother – Maria Zifchak, Austrian Woman – Theodora Hanslowe, British Dancer – Kate Miller-Heidke, Molqi – Sean Panikkar, Mamoud – Aubrey Allicok, Rambo – Ryan Speedo Green, Omar – Jesse Kovarsky, Palestinian Woman – Maya Lahyani.

With the passage of about 30 years, I had only a vague memory of the event until the Met announced this opera for this season.  Wanting to get some modern opera in, we booked this as part of this season’s subscription.  Other commitments got us to make a couple of exchanges before settling on tonight’s performance.  Thus we got to see the premiere performance of the opera at the Met.

During the summer the Met announced that it was cancelling a live broadcast of a performance because of the controversy it generated.  I didn’t explore the reasons for the cancellation (not that people would really tell the truth with these things,) but attributed it to political correctness to not offend Palestinians.  It therefore came as a surprise as the premiere date drew closer that the groups most vocal against the opera are Jewish groups.  The big issue is they feel the opera puts Palestinians and Jews on the same footing, thus committing the sin of “moral equivalence.”

I do have some strongly held world views, but I have tried to avoid talking about those in this blog, since it is really more about the arts and the enjoyment thereof.  However, a visit to Bethlehem in 2012 punctuated for me the hardship Palestinians live under.  Of course people with different political leanings would attribute different reasons for why this is so, and in no way should such despair justify terrorism, yet I also feel talking about their hopelessness is not automatically anti-Semitism, and having a chorus of exiled Palestinians right next to one of exiled Jews does not equate to moral equivalence.

It was difficult to avoid talking about the protest at Lincoln Center at the event.  One of speakers against the opera was former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who said as a lover of opera he liked the opera as a music composition but denounced it for not being factually accurate and damaging.  A few hundred people gathered in Dante Park across the street, many wearing signs condemning Peter Gelb, the general manager.  News reports say many people in wheelchairs showed up to protest, although we didn’t get close enough to the crowd to see too many of them.  Security managed to cordon off all entrances into Lincoln Center Plaza (both efficient, and disturbing, if you think about it), only people with tickets were allowed in.  Of course one could tell the officer that it was a “will call” and get through.  Some people did get in wearing placards with various statements.  There was no attempt to remove them; instead they were followed by guards a couple of steps behind.

Perhaps it was important to have some level of security in the off-chance that things got out of hand.  But I thought the police handled it well.  Be there, let them know there are limits, and to the extent possible, let it be.  They would even let people into the auditorium with statements taped to their bodies.  During the performance there was one episode with someone shouting to the effect “The murder of Klinghoffer won’t be forgotten,” and I read that one person was arrested.  Otherwise the protests during the show were limited to booing when others were applauding.   Frankly the booing could be attributed to displeasure at the music or its performance.

I certainly support one’s right to protest, even at some inconvenience to others – and the inconvenience is minimal in this instance.  I do feel the animosity towards the opera is mis-directed.  Unless they already harbor these thoughts, few people would leave with thoughts of moral equivalence and justified terrorism after seeing this opera.  Indeed the sympathy is with the Klinghoffers and other people on the hijacked ship.  Left alone, the opera would just be a docudrama of that horrible event.  The protests probably got more people to try to examine the different angles to the story.  In the Playbill there is an article by the two daughters of the Klinghoffers that ends with the accusation that the opera “sullies the memory of a fine, principled, sweet man …”  I certainly can’t begin to appreciate the pain of losing one’s father that way, but having his memory sullied by the opera is the last thought that came to my mind when the opera concluded.

Also in the Playbill is a listing of the performance history since its debut in Brussels in March 1991.  Indeed it was performed in New York several times, by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn Philharmonic, and Julliard.  Evidently there was no such brouhaha during those runs.

The story is told with narration by the principals.  Juxtaposed throughout are “re-enactments” of various scenes, some quite chaotic.  Most of the action took place on the ship deck, with various video projections depicting the ship’s wake, radar screen, and passage of time (different positions of the sun.)  There were also instances that the concrete slabs were used to depict the wall at the West Bank.  In addition to the two Exiled choruses that started the show, there were three others: Ocean, Dessert, and Day.  These choruses were highlights of the opera, complex yet nice tunes that conveyed the sentiments well.

I don’t know Adams’s music well enough to be able to characterize it.  We had the (mis)fortune of sitting around some sophisticated music connoisseurs.  The two on our right were talking about how some adaptations were made for this Met run.  More interestingly, the two behind us compared John Adams to Philip Glass.  Perhaps it is indeed the case, perhaps it was the power of suggestion, I did hear some Philip Glass, especially in Act 3, in that a relatively simple theme  repeated over and over while migrating forward.  Adams’s construction sounded more complex though.  Oftentimes the melodies, such as they were, were in the orchestra rather than in the vocals.

We were practically in the same seats we had last Friday for Carmen.  There I was amazed at how strong all the singers sounded.  Tonight the voices were quite a bit weaker.  The opera ended with Marilyn’s solo after she learned of Klinghoffer’s death.  It is supposed to be heart-wrenching, but somehow the sentiments didn’t come through.

Given the chaos that was happening on the stage, Robertson was impressive in delivering a crisp performance.  One got the strong impression that the performance progressed in exactly the way he wanted it to.

It is difficult to compare this opera with other (relatively) modern operas I have seen (Shostakovich and Glass come to mind.)  I suspect without the politics, I would walk away equally puzzled.

The curtain call was met with thunderous applause, much more than your usual modern opera where many were probably busy scratching their heads instead.  Even I did my share of heavy clapping to show appreciation of the skills of the artists and support for the organization to stage such a controversial event.  Being a Met premiere, Adams and the rest of the production crew all came on stage.  I caught a glimpse of Robertson, he seemed to have aged considerably since the last time I saw him.  (He was born in 1958, a relatively young guy.)

The New YorkTimes review is one of the longest I have seen.  It has a good description of the specifics of the opera.  The reviewer calls the final monologue “overwhelming,” quoting some of the poignant passages in the libretto. Did he read the libretto in advance, or does he have such keen appreciation of poetry?  Also, one adaptation made for this production is the actual murder of Leon Klinghoffer on stage.

All was quiet by the time we left.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Princeton Opera Alliance – Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. October 19, 2014.

Princeton Meadow Church, Princeton, NJ. ($10.)

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor – Derrick Goff.  Don Pasquale – Joshua Hemmings, Malatesta – Rashard Deleton, Ernesto – Tom Mulder, Norina – Pei-Ju Yu, Notary – Craig Sanphy.

We were made aware of this opera performance by Angela, whose son plays in the orchestra.  Our intention was to be there to show support.  I remember seeing this opera at the Met, and seeing Anna Netrebko for the first time singing the role of Norina.  In the back of mind, I was wondering how to compare tonight’s performance with one at the Met that boasted a renowned cast (Juan Diego Forez sang the part of Ernesto.)

If I were to write a headline for the review, it would be “A Gem in the Rough Nestled in a Corner of New Jersey.”  It was already impressive that the artists managed to put together a respective rendition of a rather complex piece of music, it was even more so with the singers performing at a high standard.

It didn’t start out that way: the orchestra began the overture with intonation and precision problems.   Luckily it began to settle down when they reached the well-known tune “So anch’io la virtu magica.”  This would characterize the orchestra’s playing throughout the evening, some passages that were okay interspersed in a mostly marginally acceptable performance.  Orchestra members range from senior citizens to (maybe) middle school kids.

The set is simple, which is to be expected given the budget the company has to work with.  A desk, a sofa, and some backboards.  Some plastic plants were trotted out for the garden scene.  The only suggestion I have would be to add some soundsoak to dampen the echoes that proved distracting and annoying.

The singers, however, were uniformly good, with most of them holding advanced degrees in music from well-known schools.  The small sanctuary certainly made projecting their voices much easier, but it was still impressive how well they carried themselves.  Yu belted out her lines so loudly that I worried that she would lose it at the end of the opera.  She didn’t.  The one complaint I have was the volume of the singers was mostly on “high.”  While the comedic nature of the opera doesn’t require a lot of introspection, a soft passage here or there would be a great improvement.

The opera calls for a minimal cast, and no chorus.  Still Donizetti squeezed in quite a few duets, trios, and quartets.  (I didn’t notice any quintets even though there was a total of five singers.)  The arias were many and nice, but I find most of them not quite hummable.  The story, however, was as inane as my first encounter with it.

Only about 60 people or so attended the performance – and I suspect the majority of them were family and friends.  It is a real pity since it would have been a pleasant 3-hour experience.  The artists are to be commended since they didn’t allow this to dampen their enthusiasm.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Bizet’s Carmen. October 18, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat C111, $104.50).

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor – Pablo Heras-Casado.  Micaela – Hei-Kyung Hong, Don Jose – Aleksandrs Antonenko, Carmen – Anita Rachvelishvili, Escamillo – Massimo Cavalletti.

This is the first opera of the season for us, so I set out with some level of anticipation and excitement.  While Carmen is a very familiar story, and I know many of the tunes quite well, I was quite sure I was going to enjoy it.  A couple of unknowns loomed in the background: a new set (introduced in 2009,) and that the performers were relatively unknowns to the Met.  The one exception is Hong, whom I saw tonight for the first time.  She was a frequent artist at the Met many years ago, but her appearances seem a lot more sporadic nowadays.

Enjoyed the opera I did, but not without some misgivings.

Let us first get the new set out of the way.  In two words: it worked.  The curtain at the beginning was a red lightning bolt on a black background.  That “theme” is echoed as the opening of a cave, and in the dress worn by Carmen at her death.  By rotating the two parts of the set, the scenery changed from outside to inside, a design that is simple yet clever.  While not really part of the set, two dancers did their bit during the overture (to Act 1) and interlude (to Act 3).  The dancers Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey added a visual element to the music, but not much else in my opinion.  The one element that was missing: live horses.  Instead of singing the Toreador song astride a horse (or with one nearby,) Escamillo did that next to a chair.  To compensate for that, a dead bull came into view at the end of the opera as the set rotated to expose the interior of the arena.

The principal protagonist of the opera is, of course, Carmen.  When well-performed, Carmen elicits a range of emotions ranging from sympathy to pity from the audience.  (I tried to use the word “disgust” as she is also the villain, but couldn’t bring myself to do that.)  Knowing how the story unfolds made it easier to ride along emotionally, but the way Rachvelishvili approached her role made the experience a lot more about enjoying her singing - which she did superbly – and less about the complex character that is Carmen.  In the song and dance she did for Don Jose, the sound of the castanets was provided by the orchestra.  Her voice was strong, and there were occasions that I thought a whisper would do nicely.  There were also a couple of places where she couldn’t quite reach the high notes.

A similar description can be applied to the other singers.  They all have strong voices, but failed to deliver the drama expected of their roles.

Perhaps in the interest of time, there was only one intermission, after Act 2.  One has to admire how the singers, especially Rachvelishvili, managed the entire opera with only one break.  As far as I could tell, they held nothing back.  (Again, I wish they would during some of the more tender moments.)

Even though I claim familiarity with the opera, I continue to pick up new insight about the work.  For one, I didn’t realize (or had forgotten) that Bizet died while the opera was going through its first run, and thus didn’t know how very popular the opera would become.  (We saw the Met’s 990th performance, which is a lot of performances.)  Another aspect that I hadn’t noticed before was the music got much darker during the second half.  That’s when the unraveling of the relationship between Carmen and Don Jose eventually led to the murder.  The version used for this performance was by Fritz Oeser; the main characteristic was little spoken dialogue, I noticed only a couple of sentences.

We have seen Heras-Casado a couple of times before: once with New York Phil, the other time with Mostly Mozart.  He was fine with the overtures, and the orchestra in general sounded good.  It was thus a bit puzzling that the whole experience was a bit on the chaotic side.  Things were more out of control than even the storyline would suggest.

I said at the outset that I enjoyed the opera.  What I do not know is why I enjoyed it.  Perhaps the great music, the powerful story, and the individual performers combine to overcome the flaws in the overall execution.

The New York Times review is generally negative, contrasting this run with the 2009 performances led by Nezet-Seguin.  The reviewer thought the performance of Rachvelishvili was more interesting than the entire opera.  Or is that what he means by “Her Carmen is more interesting than this ‘Carmen’?”  Interestingly, there is a New York Times review in 2012 that was also critical, although about different aspects.  The reviewer in this case agrees with me: the dancing is superfluous, and Rachvelishvili shaded flat a couple of times.

Traffic was quite bad getting into town, and I had trouble finding parking.  Together with the need to change some tickets (again,) my dinner was take-out quiche from Europan.  We did stop by Burger King along the Turnpike on the way home.