Thursday, December 25, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg. December 23, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony (Seat B25, $87.50).

Story.  There are basically two storylines in the opera.  The first is how the self-taught poet-composer young knight Walther von Stolzing defies the tradition of how meistersongs are composed and still manage to win the Meistersinger contest.  The other is the love story between the two couples Walther and Eva, and David (Sachs’ apprentice) and Magdalene (Eva’s attendant).  The main character, however, is Hans Sachs who is involved in both stories.  Sachs helps in Walther’s win by coaching him on how to write the song, and by foiling the attempt by Beckmesser to win the contest by stealing Walther’s work.  In the love story, he is for a while the love interest of Eva, but he directs Eva’s love towards the younger Walther.

Conductor – James Levine.  Walther von Stolzing – Johan Botha, Eva Pogner – Annette Dasch, Magdalene (Eva’s daughter) – Karen Cargill, David (Sachs’ apprentice) – Paul Appleby, Veit Pogner – Hans-Peter Konig, Sixtus Beckmesser – Johannes Martin Kranzle, Hans Sachs (shoemaker) – James Morris.

Let us first dispense with the length of this opera, which is billed as a 6-hour event on the Met’s website (from 6 pm to 12 midnight).  In reality it is not quite that long: the opera started at about 6:10, and there were two intermissions of 45 minutes and 40 minutes. That leaves 4:25 hours as the actual performance time; still a lengthy one, but not overly so compared to some other Wagner operas (Gotterdammerung and Tristan and Isolde come to mind.)

The other issue is the story.  What I wrote above captures the gist of the plot.  However, it doesn’t do justice to the details Wagner wove into the opera.  First, he describes in considerable detail the Meistersinger competition process, from what the rules are and how the winning Morning Dream Song (Selige Morgentraumdeut-Weise) gets composed.  The main character, Sachs, also does a lot of introspections, one of which is “Madness, madness, everywhere madness” (Wahn, Wahn, uberall Wahn.)  At the beginning of the last Act the audience is also introduced to the different guilds of the period: for each of them a banner is trotted out by a group of artisans of that particular craft.

I often joke that Wagner, being his own librettist, probably had no one to help with editing his story; and he really liked his own writing.  As with many of his other operas, an aggressive editor could have condensed the work considerably without leaving out much of the drama or the music.  Lest this be considered a scandalous statement, people (Maazel and Gilbert come to mind) have one-hour versions of the Ring, and some composers would condense their own music (Stravinsky’s Firebird and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake are well-known examples.)

The sets were nicely designed.  Realistic, not like those undefined sets of the Ring and Tristan and Isolde, and quite elaborate.  The scene for Act 2 reminds both Anne and me (independently) of what we saw in Oberammergau, and the tradesmen and their banners remind me of the Maypoles we saw on the same trip; yes, I know Bavaria and Nuremberg are rather different regions.  I traveled quite often to Nuremberg on business in the 1990s, and remember well the city wall (Act 3) around the city.  I wonder how they manage to keep the flag on the wall flapping.

 The set for Act 2 depicts Hans Sachs' workshop.  It reminds both Anne and I of this 3-D frame we got when we visited Bavaria during the summer.

In the last scene different banners for different guilds were brought onto the stage.  Something similar to maypoles being erected.  This one is from Schwangau.

In the Playbill, Michael Volle discusses how he needs to pace himself in order to last the entire performance as Sachs.  I was wondering why that was so after the first act, not knowing the character had so much singing to do in Acts 2 and 3.  For this performance James Morris sang the role of Sachs, and he did well overall.  One could make a case that he was indeed holding back a little so he could go the distance, but who could blame him?  Johan Botha as Walther did an excellent job singing, but given his enormous size, it really took a lot of “suspension of reality” to think of him as Eva’s young love interest.  Konig as Viet Pogner, Kranzle as Beckmesser, and Appleby as David had relatively minor roles compared to Morris and Botha, but they came through.  The one disappointment was Dasch singing the role of Eva; her voice was simply no match for the strong male voices around her.

I was worried and curious how Levine would do, given the state of his health the last ten or so years.  Very well, thank you … at least from what where I sat.  He still needed to use the special chair made for him, but he was energetic and engaged.  Perhaps the longer than usual intermissions were put in to give him time to recuperate, but they are well worth it if they indeed make conducting such monumental compositions possible.

This is billed as a comedy; to me it is only true in the Shakespearean sense of a play’s being either a comedy or a tragedy.  There are some funny moments in the story, such as the riot scene that ends Act 2 or how Beckmesser made a fool of himself in Act 3, but they don’t dominate the story.  For me the other aspects of the story do not carry enough drama to make the opera riveting.  As for me, even though I did lose concentration a few times, I didn’t nod off at all.  The music is quite lyrical, especially considering the period in Wagner’s career it was composed, but sounded straightforward to the first time casual listener.  The storyline is simple despite the details introduced, and not the usual myths that characterize so much of Wagner’s work.  Many theses doubtlessly have been written to analyze these differences, but they remain academic for someone who sees this (at most) a few times.  In that sense this opera is a disappointment.

The final scene has Walther initially rejecting the title of Meistersinger.  Hans goes into this long spiel of how important it is for the glorious German traditions to be upheld.  If I had been Wagner’s editor, I definitely would have cut this out.  I am a bit surprised that subsequent editors have not excised this from the opera, especially given Wagner’s notoriety as an anti-Semite.  Even the Playbill acknowledges that this is an issue.

The New YorkTimes review is generally positive, but the reviewer seems to think Levine has lost some of the energy he had when he last led this show.  There was also an article on James Morris; he and Volle were called in after the originally program tenor withdrew.  I didn’t realize he will turn 68 shortly!  Amazing.  Also, this set will be retired after this run, and will be “replaced by a fanciful production by Stefan Herheim” in 2019.  Altogether a rather poignant moment.  Morris also made the statement that “there’s not one note in the opera that I would cut.”

We went up together with CS, with me driving his car.  We found to our delight free parking on 65th and got in early enough to grab something to eat at Europan.  CS’s is a $25 rush ticket in the orchestra area.  There were quite a few empty seats tonight, so Anne and I moved downstairs (right side of row Y) after Act 1.  The acoustics were so much better that I am (i) tempted to get some rush tickets; and (ii) consider upgrading my subscription in the future.

Monday, December 22, 2014

New Jersey Symphony – Jacques Lacombe, conductor. December 21, 2014.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC, Newark, NJ.  Tier 4 (Seat D101, $26.10).

Handel’s MESSIAH

Nathalie Paulin, soprano; Mireille Lebel, mezzo-soprano; Isaiah Bell, tenor; Gordon Bintner, bass-baritone.
Montclair State University Singers, Heather J. Buchanan, director.

About 20 people from church, most associated with our Youth Choir, attended this concert.  Anne got these (already) inexpensive tickets at a group discount, and we were able to get parking vouchers at $10 per car (thus saving $6 per car.)  All in all a great deal.  As it happens, another 15 or so people from our church went to the performance in Neptune the night before.

I was pleased to see that the attendance was quite good, at least in the Tier we were in.  We had a great view of the stage, but it was so far enough away that I could barely make out the different people on it.

The sound was a bit on the soft side, but came across quite well, as expected.  I also noticed that the cello was used more in the continuo (compared to New York Philharmonic, which also used the bass.)  Also here the same person played both the harpsichord and the organ, and he had to move from one bench to the other frequently, carrying the music with him.

Overall it was a good performance.  Nothing fancy like what the New York Philharmonic was trying to do, just a competent rendition of the oratorio.  I am sure anyone listening carefully can find some issues, but I had no problem sitting through the entire event even though it heard it only a few days ago.

And the verdict?  On the occasion where I could do a head-to-head comparison, I thought this was a better overall performance than the New York Philharmonic one.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Holiday Express Benefit Concert. December 18, 2014.

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ.  Balcony (Seat K-106, $52.)

Lorinda and I have the same birthday, and she decided that we should celebrate it together by inviting Anne and me to dinner at Soul Kitchen and this benefit concert.  Traffic in Red Bank was congested during the evening rush hour, so we got to the restaurant late.  This restaurant is founded by Jon Bon Jovi’s wife as a charity where people who cannot afford to eat out can do so by working for the meal (one hour’s work for a dinner for four.)  Those too lazy to work can pay $10 each; those more generous are welcome to pay more.  Having said all that, it looks like everyone that evening was ready to pay for their dinner.  The food is best characterized as “diner quality.”

Holiday Express has been operating in New Jersey for over 20 years, yet this was my first encounter with them.  I had not been to a pop or rock concert all my life, so didn’t know what to expect.  This one started at 7:45 pm or so, and went non-stop until about 10:15 pm, and it was loud, very loud.  No wonder people can lose their hearing if they go to these events too often.

The songs are season-appropriate; I was surprised that some were overtly religious (e.g., Silent Night.)  Not a follower of the pop or rock and roll scene, I didn’t know how well-known the performers were (and still don’t.)  After the first half-hour or so I came to the conclusion that being able to carry a tune was optional, and being overweight helped.  As I got into it, I began to appreciate the stamina involved, most of the performers had to stand there either playing their instruments or singing backup, for over two hours.  And there were some individual instrument and vocal numbers that were quite well done.

In the middle and towards the end of the program several people in wheel chairs were brought out and they joined in the singing.  I am usually uncomfortable with having these displays that in my view don’t show enough respect for the dignity of the unfortunate.  However, seeing them in real life and how they enjoyed themselves, perhaps it was good that for a few moments they could forget their problems and got into the spirit of the season.  In any case, as people (myself included) go about enjoying this time of the year, it is good to remind them that we should remember those in need.

There were at least a few widely known performers in the group.  One of them was Mary D’arcy who among other roles played Christina in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.  The other was Ben E King who wrote the well-known song “Stand by me.”  There were announcers and DJs from a local FM station 101.5 FM.

At the end of the evening, Anne and I thanked our hosts Lorinda and Henry for a lovely evening, and that I got to experience something new.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

New York Philharmonic – Gary Thor Wedow, conductor. December 17, 2014.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 2 Left (Seat S8, $62.50).

Messiah (1741) by Handel (1685-1759).

Camilla Tilling, soprano; Iestyn Davies, countertenor; Michael Slattery, tenor; James Westman, baritone; Conner Tsui, boy soprano.
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller, director.
Continuo: Carter Brey, cello; Max Zeugner, bass; Kim Laskowski, bassoon; Daniel Swenberg, theorbo; Matthew Muckey, trumpet; Gary Thor Wedow, virginal; Paolo Bordignon, harpsichord; Kent Tritle, organ.

CS suggested this concert as Max will be the principal bass in this series.  We quickly agreed even though we got back from Asia only a few days ago and we do plan on attending a New Jersey Symphony one this Sunday; that we could get some discount via Travelzoo helped.

With the day billed as a gridlock alert day, CS and Shirley came by a little after 4 pm to drive into the city.  Traffic was exceptionally good, naturally, and we got to the West Side at around 5:30 pm.  Looking back on my blog entry for last year, the same thing happened!  Perhaps they should declare gridlock alert more often so only the intrepid would drive on the streets of New York.

In any case, that allowed us enough time to have dinner at Fiorello’s, and for me to pick up the tickets and do some ticket exchanges at the Met.

One would think I would be an expert on Messiah as I have heard it many times in concert and have on occasion sung some selections as a choir member.  I may or may not be an expert, but I still learned a few things this time around.  While there is no surprise there are many editions of the score, and indeed Handel himself made several, today’s calls for a countertenor (instead of an alto) and a boy soprano.  In the continuo section there is this instrument called a theorbo (most people would simply call that a lute.)  Another instrument listed is the virginal.  A search of the web says it is a harpsichord-like instrument, and the artist listed next to it is Wedow the conductor.  I didn’t see the instrument, and didn’t see the conductor performing on it.  The concert (with intermission) lasted close to 2 hours 45 minutes, about 15 minutes longer than the one we heard last year.  The libretto in the Program Notes contains markings for Part and Scene, which greatly helped make sense of the choice of scripture.

All the mechanics aside, my overall assessment of tonight’s concert was one of disappointment.  Early into the program, it was already evident that Wedow was going to be very deliberate in the approach.  A less charitable adjective would be timid.  (That may account for a good deal of the extra 15 minutes.)  While the reduced dynamic range may well be a “period” interpretation of how Messiah was played in Handel’s time, I doubt deliberate ritardandos were used very much at that time.  It could well be Wedow got it right, but this performance in so many ways different from what I (and most people, no doubt) think Messiah should sound, that the changes just sounded unnatural.

The soloists got the job done, but except for a burst of energy here or there, their performance was unremarkable.  Although Handel wrote a lot of countertenor parts in his operas (Julius Caesar comes to mind), this was my first encounter with one in Messiah.  Davies’ rendition sounded a bit forced.  I remember being very impressed with Slattery when he sang Britten’s Serenade on one day’s notice; today he wasn’t at all exceptional.  The air “I know that my redeemer liveth” is one of the defining moments in the oratorio, Tilling mostly muddled through it.  Westman was generally okay, but his baritone voice sounded weak at the lower notes.  Tsui as the boy soprano had only a few lines, in this case perhaps showing up (at 11 years old) is remarkable enough.

All these criticisms would turn into praises if it were not for the fact that this was a New York Philharmonic concert, and that I have heard much better from them before.  And overall, I was quite happy to have attended this concert; after all is said and done, it was still performed by a group of accomplished artists at a high level of expertise.

This coming Sunday I will be doing this all over again, this time with New Jersey Symphony at NJPAC.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Taiwan National Symphony Orchestra – Shao-Chia Lu, conductor; Baiba Skride, violin. December 11, 2014.

National Concert Hall, Taipei.  Fourth floor, Row 12, Seat 26 (NT$320.)

Program: Symphonic Poem Series – An Orchestral Spectacular
Symphonia Domestica, Op. 53 by Richard Strauss (1864-1949).
Violin Concerto, Op. 77 by Brahms (1833-1897).

 The CKS Memorial is flanked by the National Theatre (left) and the National Concert Hall.

The huge stage of the National Concert Hall is dominated by the pipe organ.

My sister, her husband, and I are visiting Taiwan for a couple of days.  While having dinner at the food court at Taipei 101, I browsed the web and noticed that this concert was on at 7:30 pm.  I said goodbye to them and took the short subway ride to the concert hall, getting there at about 7:10 pm.  As I walked to the box office area, a group of young students said they got an extra group ticket which they got at 20% group discount.  At first I wanted to get a better seat, but relented after a while.  Turns out the seat was located at the last row of the rather cavernous concert hall, and I was among a large group of high school music students.

The concert hall has been around since the late 80s, and I had seen but not visited it on many prior visits to Taipei.  While large, it seats a surprisingly small number of people – about 2000.  The seats are large and quite comfortable.  This is the first concert hall I ever visited that I could rest my head against the back of the seat.  Attendance was only so-so, with many seats empty at our level.  I couldn’t see the orchestra level too well, but there were quite a few empty seats in the first few rows that I did see.  Not good.

In my rush to get to my seat, I didn’t have time to get a program.  (I did get one during the intermission, and it cost NT$30.)  But being the Strauss "expert" (after all, I visited Garmisch recently) that I am, I remember this as “a day in the lives of the Strausses” kind of tone poem, and that there would be baby crying and being calmed, Strauss’s wife scolding someone, and a romantic episode where more babies are expected to be conceived.  Turns out it’s not that far from what is in the Program Notes.  What I missed were the details, and the introduction of the baby’s aunts and uncles.  The Program Notes also mentions the father as having the last word – naturally – in the triumphant closing bars.

The word "expert" was properly enclosed in quotes as I don’t remember any of the music.  I am not creative enough to supply a narrative even though I knew the composition of the main characters.  The Notes devotes a whole page to outline the music, complete with whom the specific instruments represent.  Given how complex it reads, I am not sure I would have been able to follow along even if I had had the program in front of me.

This is my first encounter with the venue and the orchestra, so I can’t quite decide how good they are.  The acoustics as heard from the last row certainly was good, but that tends to be the case as the sound gets funneled by the relatively low ceiling.  The stage is huge, there was still lots of floor space left with over 100 musicians on stage.  An organ occupies the entire width of the stage.  Somehow I think the sound may come across crispier if they had put panels between the orchestra and the organ – of course the stage wouldn’t look as impressive with the organ blocked from view.  The orchestra certainly got all the mechanics right, but the performance didn’t bowl me over with how good the story was being told.  In their defense Strauss isn’t easy for this “expert” to grasp.

After the intermission I found myself an empty seat in the second row, which has a much better view of the stage.

Baiba Skride is a 33-year old, Latvian-born violinist who currently lives in Germany.  She plays the ‘Ex Baron Feilitzsch’ Stradivarius (1734) loaned to her by Gidon Kremer.  While the Program lists some impressive conductors and orchestras she has worked with, this was my first encounter of her performance.

The Brahms violin concerto is easy to like, and this performance is no exception.  While not unexpected, I was still disappointed by the poorer acoustics at the closer-in seat, and had trouble at times picking out the solo violin.  Skride had some minor problems with intonation, but put in an overall enjoyable and virtuoso performance.  The violin's lower registers sounded better than the higher registers, which is unusual for a Strad.  She also played a short piece as an encore.

The concert lasted a bit over two hours.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hong Kong Philharmonic – Lawrence Foster, conductor; Li Biao, percussion. December 6, 2014.

H.K. Cultural Centre Concert Hall.  Stalls 1 (Seat A19, $160.)

Program – Radio 4 Live! A Birthday Celebration
Commentaries (first performance) by Richard Tsang.
-          Kathy Lam and Jonathan Douglas, narrators.
Percussion Concerto by Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943).
Symphony no. 9 in E minor, op. 95, From the New World by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904).

Anne and I were visiting Hong Kong for a few days, and our friend David L was also in town.  I found out about the concert by looking at the HK Phil website, and David went ahead and bought 3 tickets (with senior discount) for the evening.  David and I met up late afternoon, Anne joined us for dinner, and we then went to this concert together.  Our seats were in the first row of the auditorium.  I would have preferred a seat in an area that gave a better view of the stage, but all things considered, they were okay.

My recent reviews of the Hong Kong Philharmonic were enthusiastic, and it is for this orchestra that I coined the phrase “the orchestra deserves a better audience.”  Unfortunately after tonight’s performance, that assessment is now subject to review.  I hope it was a glitch (or combination of glitches) that caused this revision in my opinion, but only future concerts will tell.

Frankly the program wasn’t all that interesting.  It began with two esoteric pieces: one by a local composer writing to commemorate the 40th anniversary of RTHK Radio 4, and one a percussion concerto premiered in 1995 at the New York Philharmonic.  With Dvorak’s New World on the program, I at least expected to get some enjoyment out of the evening.

What went wrong?  Not much, actually.  However, nothing went that “right” either.

First the commemorative piece.  In all the program listings of works by living composers I see dates of birth for the composers.  Not so with Mr. Tsang.  I didn’t look carefully, since it wasn’t worth my time to do so, only the German wiki entry in the search results gave his birthday as 1952, making him a tad over sixty.  This wasn’t that original a piece either, as he took the piece he wrote 10 years ago (naturally for the orchestra’s 30th anniversary) and embellished it with some extra material and the addition of two narrators.  To illustrate the depth of the work, let me quote the last few lines of the composer’s (in this case the author’s) poem (or is it prose) called “The Chant:” Differences enable CHANGE, Changes define TIME, And TIME defines EXISTENCE.  (But what if TIME doesn’t really exist?)  Mixed in this brilliant poem (to the causal reader of the blog, I am being sarcastic) are quotes from various people ranging from Dr. Seuss (Don’t cry because it’s over – Smile, because it happened) to Friedrich Nietzsche (Invisible threads are the strongest ties.)

Typing this a week later, I recall very little of the music other than it wasn’t unbearable.  Which may be a compliment after all.  And if I happen to be in Hong Kong ten years from now, and am still in the concert-going mood, I probably won’t let the next version deter me from going to a concert, provided that it is kept to about the same duration of 12 minutes.  Radio 4 used to be an all-classical radio station.  It is now labeled as a “classical music and fine arts” station.

The only aspect that I distinctly remember is the lady narrator’s voice.  She spoke mostly the Chinese portion of the narration, and her voice kept reminding me of the women that would dub various TV programs (such as Bonaza) into English when I was growing up in Hong Kong.  She is too young to be doing it then; but perhaps like broadcasters she was trained to speak in a certain way.  The composer also came out for the curtain call.

It is so much easier to make complaints as I also have a lot to say about the percussion concerto.  It is great that the percussionist can occasionally be made into the soloist.  I remember as a young boy being very impressed with what drummers (pop music at that) could do with their sets.  However, 30 minutes of that is just too much.  The concerto is in three movements: Con forza – ‘In Memoriam:’ Misterioso – Ritmico con brio (with restrained energy) con forza.  It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered by Richard Lamb, who remains with the orchestra to this day.

During the first movement, the soloist played together with other percussionists.  For the second movement, written as a memorial to Schwantner’s fellow composer Stephen Albert, the soloist stood in the front.  He continued to shake the (for lack of a better name) salt shakers as he moved to the back for the third movement.  The instruments I could see (and listed in the program notes) were a vibraphone (played with mallets and with a contrabass bow), a rack of nine Almglocken, a high-octave set of crotales (played with beaters and with a bow), two triangles, two cymbals, a water gong (a tam-tam lowered into a large kettledrum – in this case just a regular plastic container – filled with water), a concert bass drum, and a tenor drum.  Indeed the Program Notes contains a detailed description of the music, but it didn’t help.

I subscribe to the view that any craft at its best is impressive.  Again that must be revised after today.  Taking away nothing from how difficult the piece is, I wasn’t impressed.  And why else would someone write such a piece?  I enjoyed it for 10 minutes or so, and then it sounded repetitive bordering on boring despite the different timbres and pitches provided by the huge set of instruments.

Li played an encore written by his friend I vaguely recall had something to do with jazz and blues.  Surprisingly he doesn’t have a gig with a symphonic orchestra but does solo recitals and heads up a group of percussionists.

I hadn’t seen (nor heard of) Lawrence Foster before.  He is 73 years old, born in Los Angeles, and since 2013 owns the city of Marseille as leader of both the Opera Company and Philharmonic Orchestra.  After the first half of the program, all I could conclude was that he was a meticulous time-keeper.  I did not see any evidence he was trying to shape the music at all.

It takes a lot to butcher the New World Symphony.  And the orchestra didn’t.  The symphony is easy to enjoy, and I enjoyed it.  Not without misgivings, though.  The many folk tunes make it a natural vehicle to tell a story, and one could envision the scenes that go with the movements.  Such attentive listening inevitably would make one cringe as the orchestra muddled through some passages.

Perhaps this is an example to prove that the conductor matters?  I am sure the Hong Kong Philharmonic could have done a much better job with the music (even the first half), or at least I fervently hope so.

Today’s attendance was atrocious.  A generous estimate would be 50% of the seats were filled.  This reminds me of the time that they put out a program called “Russian Shakespeare” which probably scared a lot of people away.  Time to go back to the basics?