Monday, November 17, 2014

Moscow State Symphony Orchestra – Pavel Kogan, conductor; Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin. November 16, 2014.

State Theatre, New Brunswick.  Orchestra (Seat V102, $29.75)

Romeo and Juliet overture-fantasy (final version 1880) by Tchaikovsky.
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 by Bruch.
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 by Tchaikovsky.
Note: Actual performed piece was Symphony No. 4 in E minor by Brahms. 

Goldstar had this event listed in August, with tickets at $24 each (plus a $5.75 processing fee.)  I didn’t know much about this Orchestra, but certainly knew about Salerno-Sonnerberg, and at this price it sounded like a bargain.

To get to the 3 pm concert, I had to cut out of Youth Choir practice early.  Being an unseasonably cold Sunday, traffic was not a problem.  Anne had to attend a workshop at church, so she could make only the second half of the concert.

It is inexplicable to me why Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” is not as popular as Prokofiev’s; and I enjoy the Prokofiev ballet.  The former contains many nice romantic themes that should make it very popular with the audience, and they were put to good use in this adaptation.  While it was difficult to closely correlate the story with the music – and I am not sure this is a condensed version of the original score anyway – one could catch glimpses of the drama.  And this is a great way to get the afternoon started, even though it wasn’t a technically or musically challenging piece.

Given how well-known she is, it surprising that I have never seen (or remember having the chance to see) Salerno-Sonnerberg perform live before this afternoon.  (And the other well-known thing about her was that she sliced her finger while fooling around with a knife.)  She certainly made a statement with the white pants she was wearing.  Franck’s violin concerto is easy to enjoy, and she didn’t disappoint.  The little I have read about Salerno-Sonnerberg is that she gives the performance everything, and that she has some quirky mannerisms.  Both are somewhat true.  But not much more than your average virtuoso.  With her white pants her movements might look more exaggerated than they were; and she did have a habit of standing astride with the violin held under her chin when she wasn’t playing.  And there was a passage of the orchestra’s that she didn’t to play along with the first violin.

The sound of her Guarnerius (confirmed by a web search) worked very well in the relative intimacy of the auditorium.  It didn’t have the brightness of a Strad, something I wish it had for some of the passages.

Off the top of my head I couldn’t remember any of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth’s tunes.  At first I thought I misread the Program and that they were playing Brahms, with the descending and ascending third theme.  To me the piece could be passed off as Brahms’s until the themes get reused so many times.  Brahms or Tchaikovsky, it was a great performance of a lovely symphony, even though a relatively “quiet” one compared to the fifth and the sixth.  One complaint is the relatively poor acoustics of the hall.  Even with all the players beating down on their instruments hard, the volume was still only relatively modest.

The 45 or so minute work consists of four movments: Andante sostenuto; Andantino in modo di canzone; Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato; Finale: Allegro con fuoco.  I was quite familiar with the first three, but the fourth didn’t sound familiar.  Perhaps I always fell asleep by then?  No a problem today.

[Note added about an hour after this entry was first published.  I am doing this inside UA89 EWR-PEK.  The wifi access I purchased does not allow me to watch youtube videos.  However, the Wikipedia entry for Brahms 4 does contain soundtracks to the music.  Guess what, the piece played was Brahms No. 4 after all.  The movements are: Allegro no troppo, Andante moderato, Allegro giocoso, Allegro energico e passionato.  Should have trusted my first instincts.]

This audience also had the habit of applauding after each movement – at least after the exciting ones.  I usually don’t mind unless the applause interrupts the flow of music.  And I must say it did in the case of Franck’s concerto.  The conductor also seemed to show some impatience as he would sometimes keep his baton up in between movements.

MSSO’s website makes the claim that it is one of the five oldest orchestras in Russia.  I don’t know how it compares quality-wise, but what they did this afternoon was certainly first rate.  A search of the web also indicated that the have been on a tour of various places, including Connecticut and Iowa, performing the same program.

They played several encores (we left after three), and both the orchestra and the audience were quite enthusiastic during the process.  The names of the first two encores were posted outside the hall: a waltz by Strass and a Hungarian Dance by Brahms.  We couldn’t tell who wrote the third one.

We don’t know how this Program fits in with the State Theater’s program.  Our Program book lists the events in November, and most of them are country and pop.  And there is no description of the pieces, just brief biographies of the artists.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Case Scaglione, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. November 14, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 2 Left (Seat BB13, $64.50).

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1892-94) by Debussy (1862-1918).
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 82 (1904) by Glazunov (1865-1936).
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100 (1944) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).

Scaglione had been an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic for several years, and this year he got both a promotion (to associate conductor) and a chair.  We saw him sitting in the first row during a concert last year acting as a prompter: the soloist was called in at the last minute and evidently needed some cueing.  I also noticed he was a guest conductor for the Hong Kong Philharmonic recently (I didn’t get to see the concert.)  I was thus somewhat curious how he would do tonight.  That Joshua Bell is on the program was a positive factor too.

Debussy’s prelude, based on a Symbolist poem “The Afternoon of a Faun” by Stephane Mallarme describing how a faun spent a languorous afternoon observing a group of alluring nymphs, was a sensation when it was first performed.  Like my previous encounters with it, tonight’s performance was also pleasant.  However, things unfolded a bit too slowly for my taste, and it was more sterile than the story associated with the poem would suggest.

I knew about “The Mighty Five,” Russian composers who followed Glinka’s nationalistic classical style.  What I didn’t know was that a rival camp of more traditional classicists also existed, often in rivalry with the Mighty Five.  This rival camp would include Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.  Glazunov was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the Mighty Five.  To make things more complicated, the two camps were based originally in Moscow (Five) and St. Petersburg (traditional).  However, the centers of the two schools were swapped when Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow (in 1866) and Rimsky-Korsakov left for St. Petersburg (in 1871).  All this I got from the Program Notes.

The violin concerto is relatively short at 20 or so minutes, and the three movements (Moderato; Andante sostenuto – Tempo I; Allegro) are played without pause.

Joshua Bell certainly put in an enjoyable performance.  He didn’t have any of the intonation problems that he had in the past, and he handled the considerable technical demands of the music with ease.

This was the first time I heard this piece (a review of my blog confirms this,) and this is not a piece that I can grasp on the first encounter.  So I was left with sitting there enjoying the tunes, and admiring Bell’s techniques.  The last time I heard a Strad on stage was last month in Count Basie Theater, with Gil Shaham the soloist.  That instrument sounded great in the smallish auditorium.  The Strad today wasn’t quite loud enough for the vastly larger Avery Fisher Hall.  It came through most of the time, but every now and then I had to pay close attention to hear the soloist above the orchestra.  The third movement was the best of the three, and provided glimpses of the “Mighty Five” school of Russian nationalism.

Leopold Auer, a name well-known to violin students, was the soloist at the premiere.  About two decades prior he was offered the same task for Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, but he declined citing that it was unplayable.  (He eventually became a champion of the composition.)  I can’t be sure, as I haven’t seen the score, but other than being quite a bit shorter, Glazunov’s work is equally demanding on the musician as Tchaikovsky’s.  Indeed with the many quick harmonics and double-stop passages, one could make a case the Glazunov is more demanding.  Of course by that time Auer also had another twenty years of violin craft under his belt.

Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is probably a great piece to showcase a conductor’s ability to marshal a large ensemble to generate great music.  It is reasonably accessible to the average concert-goer, familiar enough that he doesn’t have to work very hard to grasp it, yet not so popular that he will have formed an opinion of how the composition should sound.

Indeed I have heard this composition a few times before.  The simple movement markings (Andante; Allegro marcato; Adagio; and Allegro giocoso) do not do justice to the substantial 45-minute work.  To my surprise, I was well acquainted with the first and last movements, but the middle two movements didn’t sound familiar at all.  The Annotator describes the second movement as “so full of hilarity and satire … one of the composer’s most irrepressible scherzos,” and the third as “a study in elegant lyricism, though not without tragic overtones.”  That is all true (except I can’t confirm the remark about irrepressibility,) but to me they sounded the least directed movements of the symphony.

Any orchestra would be happy with how the first and last movements were delivered.  They were exciting, purposeful, showed great dynamic ranges, and sounded exquisite.  Indeed the audience could not help but applaud after the first movement, and the conclusion of the work was met with very enthusiastic response.  No doubt some of the applause was directed at Scaglione as encouragement.

I was a bit puzzled why Debussy would be paired with two works by Russian masters.  During Prokofiev I thought I heard a lot of semblance to the Debussy piece.  I don’t know if this is my trying to tie the  program together, or indeed Prokofiev was influenced a bit by Debussy’s music – Prokofiev spent considerable time in Paris, after all.

The reader may find this review more disjoint than usual.  That is unfortunately how I felt at the conclusion of the program.  Nothing particularly bad about the evening, but no “wow, that was a great concert” either.  Perhaps a bit too much to ask for from such a young conductor?

The New YorkTimes reviewer didn’t think much of the first half of the program, characterizing the Debussy piece as “pretty” rather than “seductive,” but had good words to say about the second half.

Having been out of town for a while, we stopped by Jersey City to visit Reid, and didn’t get into the West Side until about 7 pm, which gave us only time for takeout from Europan (and Anne from a street vendor.)  The concert hall had quite a few empty seats, and the city was quieter than usual – it was an unseasonably cold night, and it would drop below freezing this evening.  There was little traffic when we got out, and we must have broken our trip record at about 45 minutes.

Friday, November 07, 2014

RTE Concert Orchestra - Proinnsias O Duinn, conductor. November 5, 2014.

National Concert Hall, Dublin.  Stalls (Seat S25, E30).

Program - Mendelssohn's Elijah

Orla Boylan, soprano; Kate Allen, alto; Julian Hubbard, tenor; David Park, bass.
Our Lady's Choral Society
Galway Baroque Singers (Director: Audrey Corbett)
Wesley College Chamber Choir (Director: Helen Doyle)

Our car radio was tuned to RTE-Lyric while we were driving from Killarney to Dublin (by way of Rock of Cashel), and we heard the announcement that there was going to be a performance of Elijah tonight.  We were going to stay overnight at a hotel close to Dublin Airport to catch our flight the following day, and decided we could squeeze in another event before checking into our hotel.

Traffic into town was a bit congested, but with our GPS and Anne's constant reminder that we should keep to the left, we managed to get to the Concert Hall without too much difficulty.  Arriving at the time we did (around 5 pm), we found a few open spaces on the street, and we parked right across the street from the venue, having to feed the meter only E5.  Tickets were still available, and we decided not to get the senior discount this time.  We had enough time for coffee followed by a leisurely dinner.

They certainly had a lot of singers for this concert - easily over 200.  It's a combination of three different organizations.  The RTE Concert Orchestra is a different organization than the National Symphony Orchestra, the most obvious distinction is its smaller size.  "College" in Ireland refers to high school, and the 20 or so young girls mostly sang the part of angels.

We enjoyed this performance.  No doubt I didn't bring along the mind of a critic as a tourist, and no doubt the small concert hall helped tremendously with the acoustics, but the performers also did a great job.  Unfortunately the attendance wasn't that great; I estimate the hall was only about 60% full.

During the intermission I read up on my blog entry of the New York Philharmonic performance we saw several years ago.  I had no real recollection of that event, but the blog seems to indicate that we enjoyed it also.  I did remark the bass had some trouble at the beginning but came back strong after the intermission.  Tonight's bass had the reverse problem, he was a bit weaker during Act 2, it was still okay, though.

Park is Korean, did his training in Germany, and had a rather strong accent.  I had quite a bit of trouble following him - and I am glad we shelled out E5 again for a program which contains the libretto.  It makes me wonder if a native-speaking Italian would similarly cringe when an Italian opera is performed by non-native speakers.  The role of Elijah is quite demanding, and overall he did a great job.

The other soloists did well also.  The choirs did very well, convincingly portraying the roles of the masses and the angels. O Duinn demanded and got quite a bit of dynamics and precision from them, and in doing so delivered much of the drama of Elijah's story (or rather the several episodes chosen for this oratorio).

The role of the child looking for signs of rain was performed by the boy soprano Andrew Jones.  It must be exhilarating to be able to do that at such a young age.  He was understandingly shaking a bit, but delivered his lines clearly.

There was enthusiastic applause afterwards, and everyone got a bouquet.  We felt a sense of relief when someone finally gave Jones one; I thought he was ready to burst into tears.

With my getting to the wrong hotel, it was past midnight that we checked into our hotel room.  Nonetheless, I was glad we got a chance to go.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

RTE National Symphony Orchestra – Jamie Phillips, conductor; Enrio Pace, piano. October 31, 2014.

Main Auditorium, National Concert Hall, Dublin, Ireland.  Stalls (Seat J10, E28.80).

Program – Music for Halloween
The Firebird Suite (1919) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini by Rachmaninov (1873-1943).
Totentanz (Danse Macabre) by Liszt (1811-86).
La damnation de Faust – Dance of the Sylphs: Hungarian March by Berlioz (1803-69).
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas (1865-1935).

We are on a short trip to Ireland, and will be in Dublin for a couple of days.  When I did a search back in NJ, this is the concert I found, at that time it had many empty seats.  After we landed yesterday, we walked over to the venue (less than 15 minutes) and bought two tickets.  By telling the agent we were over 60, we got 10% off, and we were also told there were many seats available.  It was good that the place was perhaps 70% filled today.

The familiarity of the music on the program (or most of it) contrasts greatly with my lack of knowledge of the conductor, the soloist, and the orchestra.  It stands to reason Dublin has an orchestra, but a bit surprising that the major one is RTE (Irish initials for Radio and Television Ireland,) and not the Dublin Philharmonic or the Irish Symphony – I actually started searching for the more “reasonable” names first.  The conductor, an assistant conductor at the Halle Orchestra in Manchester, is in his early 20s.  This is our first encounter with the pianist, either in name or in person.  The concert hall has comfortable seats, has a capacity of around 1200 (estimate), and is not unduly ornate.  It does have a lot of common space, so people don’t keep bumping into each other before the concert or at intermission.

Feeling a bit guilty about paying so little for a concert, I went and bought a program for E5.  Other than some announcements of upcoming events, there are no advertisements. The commentary was simply written, but quite illuminating.

Overall this was an enjoyable concert.  Certainly not in the “great” category, but footed the bill very well.  All of the pieces have a “dark” side to it, with the Dies Irae theme heard in a couple of them.

Even after hearing it multiple times, the Firebird Suite still sounded a bit unfamiliar to me.  A look back at my blog entries indicated that I had listened to this 1919 5-movement version at least three times, which I all enjoyed.  Tonight’s wasn’t a bad performance, but nowhere near great.

Since I had no expectations going in, I would have been happy if the rest of the evening stayed at this level.  Turns out the rest of the evening got much better.

The piece by Rachmaninov is based on a virtuoso piece written for the violin by Paganini.  I have some idea how difficult the Paganini piece is, and from the looks of it, the Rhapsody isn’t any easier.  The Rhapsody is a set of 24 variations on the theme of Caprice No. 24, and the Program Notes goes into considerable detail about its structure.  For me the “insight” was there are basically three themes: (i) the Paganini theme in minor key, (ii) an inverted theme in a major key played at a slower speed, and (iii) the use of Dies Irae in some of the middle variations.  Pace’s performance was thoroughly enjoyable, nuanced: strong, playful, and frightful.  He was very attentive to the conductor also.

In keeping with the season, after the intermission Pace brought out a small skeleton and hanged it on the piano.  The Orchestra’s Co-Leader (most organizations would use the term Concertmaster) also brought out a skull with flashing red eyes.

Liszt’s Totentanz uses the Dies Irae theme also.  Per the program notes, he was inspired to write this after seeing “The Last Judgment” in Campo Santos.  Since he finished this work after 20 years, one could argue either way: the work left a lasting impression on him, or the influence isn’t that real.  Yesterday Anne and I went to visit Ireland’s National Gallery and viewed an exhibit where current writers picked out paintings that inspired their work.  Oberlin College loans out master paintings to their students during the school year.  I remember going to some children recitals where paintings were placed next to the piano: perhaps there was something about the practice, after all.

In any case, this was another brilliant performance by Pace.  While he didn’t make the difficult passages look easy, he played in such a way that exhilarated rather than got the listeners worried.

The Berlioz piece was quite light-hearted and delightful, even though it is excerpted from the serious work for Berlioz.  Given the story often associated with it, the Dukas piece is more humorous than scary, and that is a great way to describe Halloween here.  When we came out a little after 10, some streets were filled with people costumed up for their parties.  They were all well-behaved, perhaps it was too early to be seriously drunk yet.

If I remember correctly, a symphony orchestra in Northern Ireland (Belfast?) was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.  Given today's attendance, and (as far as I can tell) that there is no music director, I am slightly worried about this organization as well.  That would be too bad as my limited exposure to them would indicate their adding a lot of cultural value to the city.

It was a short walk in nice (for Ireland dry is nice) weather back to the hotel.