Thursday, December 17, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Jane Glover, conductor. December 16, 2015.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 2 Left (Seat V13, $64.35).

Handel’s Messiah

Heidi Stober, soprano; Tim Mead, countertenor; Paul Appleby, tenor; Roderick Williams, baritone.
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller, director.
Continuo: Eric Bartlett, cello; Timothy Cobb, bass; Karin Bliznik, trumpet; Paolo Bordignon, harpsichord; Ken Tritle, organ.

We have attended several Messiah concerts before.  Since we are now staying at Jersey City, and Goldstar had tickets on sale, we thought we would take the opportunity to go.  By now I can say I am reasonably familiar with how the oratorio came to be, how it is structured, and most of the numbers.  Of course I don’t know the music enough to know what edition the performance is using; the Playbill lists the Oxford University Press edition as the one being used.

Overall it was a very enjoyable performance.  If I were honest, I must say I usually can’t keep my full concentration for the 2-plus hour performance.  Tonight I was very attentive throughout; I didn’t doze off at all, and rarely lost my concentration.  This is particularly remarkable as I felt very tired earlier in the day.  The negative comments below are just reflections on the blemishes on an otherwise great evening.

I was quickly taken with how well the choir sang.  The many sixteenth note runs were done with clarity and precision, not easy for a 60-plus ensemble.

Of the soloists, I though Williams did the best.  He was forceful where he needed to be, and clear in his delivery of the recitatives.  The countertenor part was the most disappointing.  First, I would think the part is more naturally sung by an alto.  Mead sounded unrefined and unsteady most of the time.  I first heard him in the opera “Written on Skin” this past summer, and thought his voice worked well in that context (it was the Koch Theatre, though.)  Soprano Stober’s voice carried very well, although I thought she slurred her runs noticeably, and she had this grimace on her face all the time.  Both Anne and I thought the tenor Appleby was too slow in the introductory numbers, his turned out to be a steady and dependable voice.

Bliznik was a "guest" trumpeter.  Given how great New York Philharmonic's own trumpeters are, I wonder why it was necessary.  While her sound was generally good, she was unsteady on many occasions.

From her biography, it seems Glover started off her music career more as a musicologist than a musician.  Over the years she has conducted this piece about 100 times, so it is not unexpected that she didn’t need the score.  She was quite deliberate in how the lines were to be formed, and seemed to get what she wanted from the musicians.  Unfortunately, the only “unusual” aspect of tonight’s performance was how the “like” was stressed in the phrase “all we like sheep.”  The word is not on the downbeat, and it is not the most “important” one in the phrase.  The way the choir (dutifully, no doubt) did it just sounded strange.

The New YorkTimes review was very positive.

We took the Paulus Hook ferry over to Manhattan, and had dinner at Brookfield Place before heading up to Lincoln Center.  It was a nice evening to be doing this, although I wouldn’t mind a little more nip in the air – it was around 50 degrees.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

New York Philharmonic – James Gaffigan, conductor; Jeffrey Kahane, piano. December 11, 2015.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Y103, $53.50).

Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Split for Piano and Orchestra (2015) by Andrew Norman (b. 1979).
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Merry Pranks), Op. 28 (1895) by R. Strauss (1864-194.

We got tickets to these concerts as New York Philharmonic was running a two-for-one sale.  As this was the holiday season, and the weather had been particularly warm the last few days, it wasn’t a surprise there were quite a few empty seats in the hall.  Actually given my last two Met Opera experience, I even consider the attendance good.

Of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the fourth has to be the most unfamiliar to me.  Interestingly the last time I heard it performed by NY Phil was the last time they played it, on March 9, 2012, at NJPAC of all places.  Also, the Programs Notes for the 2012 concert talked about Beethoven not getting another commission from this Count Oppersdorf, there is no mention of that in today’s playbill.  Instead there is a brief description of the structure of the music that made the performance a bit easier to follow.  There is a 5-measure melody titled the “bassoon joke” printed in the program. While I could hear it, I wasn’t sure why it would be considered humorous, it sounded more like a technique showoff line to me.

I am not particularly bothered if after a particularly great movement an audience shows its appreciation by applauding.  But after every movement?  That is getting to be annoying.  In any case, the four movements are: Adagio – Allegro vivace, Adagio, Allegro vivace, and Allegro ma non troppo.

Till Eulenspiegel was a presumably historical figure, dating back to the early 16th century, whose escapades made him a staple of German folklore (quoting the Program Notes.)  Many thought Strauss had wanted to write an opera based on this character, but ended up composing a symphonic poem instead.  Although Strauss refused to provide a program, many believe it consists of “Till racing on horseback through the market, Till the cavalier exchanging courtesies with beautiful girls, and so on to his inevitable arrest, trial, conviction, and hanging.”  The program makes some sense.  The music is easy enough to get, and I wonder why I don’t remember ever having heard it before.

Sandwiched between the two (relatively) obscure works is the premiere of Split, written by the 36-year old Andrew Norman.  On paper the piece sounded somewhat interesting.  I quote from the Program Notes: “Here three percussionists, playing an impressive variety of instruments (including such items as tin cans and flower pots), inject sounds that set off sudden changes of course on the part of the pianist or the other orchestral musicians. Sometimes these are pre-planned, sometimes not entirely, sometimes not at all.  The players may depart considerably from the orthodoxy of orchestral practice: wind players occasionally producing sounds by blowing air through the instruments without achieving the controlled vibration required to make defined pitches; in the string parts, individual players within the sections may intone notes in rapid succession, as if they were batting about a musical volleyball.  Gamesmanship plays an important role in the realization of this composition.”  The piece was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, and dedicated to Jeffrey Kahane whose playing Norman describes as witty, full of vitality, and expressive.

I got very little of that.  Most of the time the piano music sounded like a skilled pianist pounding away aimlessly at the instrument.  Kahane was quite glued to the music (on a tablet) during the performance.  I wonder if at some point he felt trapped by the music, but not the way the composer intended it.  While different members of the orchestra were used for individual solo phrases, things looked well-rehearsed – no one seeing it would call it spontaneous or volley-ball like; and the changes in course were either non-existent or too subtle for me to pick out.  I wonder when the New York Philharmonic would pick up this piece again.

The couple sitting behind us showed up after the intermission.  In explaining to folks around them why they were late (no one asked as far I could tell,) they said they had no use for Beethoven, but came specifically for Norman’s piece.  True to their word, they left before the Strauss piece was performed.  Well, at least they don’t have to spend a lot of money on tickets.

Gaffigan, also around 36, conducted with a lot of energy.  Anne thought he also showed great humor when it came to Beethoven’s scherzo and finale.  After each piece he went around acknowledging every orchestra member who had a solo line – which was a lot of people.  I wonder if he is auditioning for a job.

If one doesn’t like how I described today’s concert experience, this New York Times review is unreserved in its praise of the event, the composer, the soloist, and the conductor.

We had a quick meal at Brookfield Place.  We missed the Paulus Hook to WFC ferry by less than a minute, so took the PATH over instead.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Metropolitan Opera – Puccini’s La Boheme. December 9, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat AA35, $25).

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor – Paolo Carignani; Marcello – Levente Molnar, Rodolfo – Ramon Vargas, Colline – Christian Van Horn, Schaunard – Alexey Lavrov, Mimi – Barbara Frittoli, Musetta – Ana Maria Martinez.

Both Anne and I are quite sure we have seen this opera multiple times, but there is only one entry in this blog on this opera, although my first entry ever (in 2005) mentioned prior experience with La Boheme. We are quite sure this would be our first encounter with it at the Met.

And this was a great experience.  Our seats were towards the rear of the orchestra section, but we could hear the singers clearly, although several of them came across as a bit weak.  One of the “lesser characters” (I couldn’t tell if it was Colline or Schaunard) did exceptionally well.

The only name I recognize from the roster is Vargas.  He used to be a regular at the Met (we are talking perhaps more than 10 years ago) but now seems to appear less frequently.  While his voice was often weak, he certainly hit the notes accurately, and had great stage presence.  While Frittoli would never be mistaken for someone dying of tuberculosis, she managed to make Mimi fragile, resolved, and sympathetic as the opera progressed.  Musetta the flirt is oftentimes the show-stealer, with the well-known aria “Quando m’en vo” one of the more hummable tunes; tonight Martinez couldn’t quite pull that off, although she did quite well.  Marcello provided support, both in the singing and in the story.

Puccini often put the melody in the orchestra; Act 4 had a lot of passages like this with the voices in “supporting” roles.  Today that combination often came across as a bit chaotic and thus a disappointment.  Otherwise the orchestra was as superb as it was last week during Tosca.

The Franco Zeffirelli-designed set has been in use since 1981.  Acts 1 and 4 take place in the rooftop apartment (garret) occupied by the men.  It was functional, but I thought they could sacrifice a bit of perspective so more of the audience can see what is happening.  Act 3 was billed as “a toll-gate on the edge of Paris,” but I could find no evidence of that.  The softly falling snow on a slope, with an inn nearby, made for a beautiful sight though.  I am sure the Playbill author had Act 2 in mind when he/she called this a “spectacular production.”  Indeed the scenery is complicated: lots of houses, café Momus, Latin Quarter, thoroughfare, and parade route are all represented here.  To me it was simply confusing.  From where we sat it usually took a while for us to find out where the principals were singing.  All that distraction may be the reason why I didn’t find Musetta as compelling as she could be.

There are several points raised in the Playbill that I resonate a lot with.  One was how many of the melodies were built incrementally with small intervals; while one could debate whether this was really the case, there is not debate that the tunes carry some interesting yet difficult-to-pinpoint characteristics.  A second point was how masters (composers and lyricists) can weave a great masterpiece from a simple story of poverty, love, and loss.  I could wax nostalgic and say everyone is special … One new discovery (or re-discovery) for me was how at the end Rodolfo and Mimi quoted the exact words from their first encounter (“Che Gelida Manina” and “Si, mi chiamano Mimi”).  It ended the same way it began, and was very effective despite the simplicity of the conversation. (I switched to Italian subtitles towards the end, and remembered the names of the two arias in Italian.)

My last encounter with the opera was in Australia, about three years ago.  While I don’t remember the specific experience, I did say it was one of the best I have been from that company.  While I must give the nod to tonight’s performance, still Opera Australia had a lot to be proud of.

Our tickets were again rush tickets.  The attendance was quite a bit better than last week’s for Tosca.  This run began in November 23, and as of today (12/11) still has 12 more performances to go.  That is quite ambitious, even for the most staged opera in Met history.

Surprisingly, the New York Times reviewer saw the production with the same cast as we did.  Her words were quite brutal: after-thought, neither ... was able to summon it, wooden efficiency.  The blow is highlighted by the praise she heaped on the secondary actors.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Metropolitan Opera - Puccini's Tosca. December 1, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat BB25, $25)

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor – Joseph Colaneri, Cavaradossi - Roberto Aronica, Tosca - Liudmyla Monastryrska, Scarpia – Marco Vratogna.

We have seen this opera twice, but not with the Met.  A check of the Met website prior to today revealed that many seats were available.  The seats assigned were towards the rear of the theater, but we moved up quite a few rows after the first act (T7).  I estimate at best a 60% occupancy, one of the lowest I have seen at the Met.

I hadn’t heard any of the headliners before, but I thought they all projected themselves very well.  The only gripe I have is everyone seemed to try to belt out their lines.  Even for a fast-paced story (the entire story basically took place in a day) there had to be some pensive and rueful moments, but one couldn’t tell from how the lines were delivered.  The well-known arias (Visse Arte, E Lucevan la stella, for instance) were all beautifully done.  I thought Monastryska had a good voice, but she could bone up on her Italian a bit. In the third act Conner Tsui sang as the shepherd.

The orchestra was superb.  Today it was more than simple background, it was an integral part of the show.

In my prior encounters with the opera, Scarpia came across as someone everybody loved to hate.  Somehow today Vratogna couldn’t generate the same level of disgust.  I still remember how powerful and ominous the Te Deum felt at the New York City Opera performance – with Scarpia scheming against sacred music in the background.

The set dates back only a few years, and is of the “realistic” type.  For some reason there was a lot of hammering on stage between acts.  In the two prior shows I saw, and also in television, Tosca commits suicide by jumping off stage.  Here she jumped from a tower in plain sight (probably with a safety harness), with stage lights out as her legs left the building.

Anne and I will be spending a lot of time in Jersey City, an easy commute into New York.  We hope to take advantage of this while we are here.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

New Jersey Symphony – Eric Wyrick, leader and violin soloist. November 28, 2015.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC, Newark, NJ.  Orchestra (Seat N111, $52.)

Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, “La Casa del diavolo,” Op. 12, No. 4 (G, 506) (ca. 1771) by Boccherini (1742-1805).
Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 1 (1917) by Respighi (1879-1936).
The Four Seasons for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 8 (1720s) by Vivaldi (1678-1741).

Eric Wyrick, the NJSO’s concertmaster, is called on as a soloist every now and then.  We heard him in Brahms’s double concerto about six months ago.  For this series he did double duty as both the soloist in Vivaldi’s virtuoso violin piece and the orchestra leader.

Two of the pieces are “old,’ composed about 250 and 300 years ago, respectively.  The other one pretends to be older (“ancient”), but was written by the modern(ish) composer Ottorino Respighi, who is better known for his “Fountains of Rome” and “Pines of Rome.”  Drawing on music from the 17th and 18th centuries, Respighi produced three sets of “Ancient Airs and Dances” and a suite title “The Birds.”

In this suite, the first movement (Balleto, “Il Conte Orlando”) is based on a dance-like composition from around 1600 by Simone Molinaro.  The basis of the lively second movement (Gagliarda) is attributed to Vincenzo Galilei, father of that Galilei.  The third movement (Villanella)is in a 16th century Neapolitan song form; the last (Passo mezzo e mascherada) is a combination of an Italian form related to the French Pavane and a type of song performedat a masked ball.

All this, gleaned from the Program Notes, sounds a lot more complicated than the music itself.  A listener can be forgiven to think this is really ancient music, except – perhaps – for the occasional modern touch Respighi put in for fun.

Luigi Boccherini is best known for the minuet from his String Quintet No. 1.  Embarrassingly that’s about all I knew about him.  While he was a rather prolific composer, with more than 20 symphonies, he was unfortunately a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, and his music suffered perhaps unjustified neglect as a result.  This rather short symphony has three movements (Andante sostenuto – Allegro assai; Andantino con moto; Andante sostenuto – Allegro con moto) and indeed sounded like an uncomplicated Haydn.  The last movement, quoting a Chaconne by Gluck depicting Don Juan’s descent to the underworld, gives the symphony the nickname “The House of the Devil.”  While one could see how the many descending phrases could describe a downward journey, for the modern listener it takes a lot more to conjure up images of the underworld.

Both pieces had a reduced but still considerable sized orchestra (e.g, eight first violins, three double basses.)  They did well without the help of a conductor, although the large size sometimes made precision a bit of a challenge.  While the sound was good given our rather good seats, there wasn’t a wide range of dynamics in the rendition.

Antonio Vivaldi was a well-known violinist.  He was also a prolific composer: about 500 concertos survive.  He wrote a cycle of 12 concertos titled “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention,” the first four of which comprise The Four Seasons.  Each of the concertos had a sonnet at the beginning, with each sonnet in three sections neatly corresponding to the three movements.  Vivaldi is thought to be the authors of the sonnets for Four Seasons.  An early example of program music.  (The sonnets can be found on the web.)

The movements breakdown for the four concertos are as follows: Spring (E Major): Allegro, Largo, Allegro; Summer (G minor): Allegro non molto, Adagio, Presto; Autumn (F Major): Allegro, Adagio molto, Allegro; Winter (F Minor): Allegro non molto, Largo, Allegro.

A smaller ensemble was used (six first violins and one double bass).  The piece still proves quite a challenge for the violinist.  Not that it calls for a lot of fancy techniques like spiccatos or harmonics, but the fast pace, number of double stops, and arpeggios make it quite the virtuoso piece.  Generally Wyrick did well, although his intonation drifted occasionally, which was a bit unexpected.  I don’t know what violin he plays on, but this one certainly had a great tone.

I forgot what my thinking was when I decided to buy these tickets; that they were on sale probably had a lot to do with it.  In contention was also New York Philharmonic’s Rachmaninoff Festival Week 3, which I really wanted to see after having seen the first two weeks.  I decided to keep things as they were, opting for a quieter experience.  CS, who went to the NY Phil concert, described it a thunderous, which I am sure was more fire-worky (?) than the storm we heard in “Summer.”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Neeme Jarvi, conductor; Daniil Trifonov, piano. November 21, 2015.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat HH111, $64).

Program - Rachmaninoff: A Philharmonic Festival.  Week 2.
Russian Theme, Op. 11, No. 3 (1894; orch. A. Leytush).
Piano Conerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 (1926; rev. 1927/41).
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 (1895).

We had very good seats for the Thursday concert, but couldn’t make it.  There were very few seats left when we tried to do the exchange, and Anne and I ended up sitting in separate sections (she had EE101, a much better seat.)

The interesting thing about this program is all the pieces belong in the more obscure part of Rachmaninoff’s work.  Most people know of the piano concerto and the symphony.  I suspect few had heard of Op. 11, which consists of six piano duets, “a collection of straightforward pieces of limited technical challenge that range through popular musical genres,” per the Playbill.  The orchestration was done in 2011.  This is the first time the music is performed by the New York Philharmonic.

It was indeed a simple-sounding piece with the principal theme repeated multiple times.  An enjoyable five minutes, nonetheless.  It was a bit strange that the audience took a while before they started to applaud.

Rachmaninoff’s first symphony was so poorly received at its premiere that the composer stopped composing for a while, resuming only after seeking psychological help from a doctor.  The symphony itself went into obscurity, and was performed the second time 48 years later, after the composer’s death.  And this series of concerts constitute its premiere with the orchestra.

Unfortunately, I am not sure I managed to appreciate the performance any more than the first listeners did.  Among the brutal comments is this one by Cesar Cui: “If there were a conservatory in Hell, …, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly …” I would only attribute the scratching of my head to my limited knowledge of music.  There are nice moments and interesting constructions in the composition; and to be fair, the 45 minutes went by rather quickly.  While I didn’t know enough about Russian liturgical chants to hear them, I certainly got the many references to Dies Irae in the first movement.  The four movements are Grave – Allegro ma non troppo, Allegro animato, Larghetto, and Allegro con brio.

Compared to the two orchestral pieces, the piano concerto is downright popular.  It was last performed by the orchestra in 2004.  Last revised in 1941, it certainly showed a lot of maturity compared with the composer’s earlier works.  A couple of curious facts about the piece.  First, the 1941 version has 192 measures excised from the original version as it was considered too long.  At a tempo of (say) 90, 4/4 time, that is about 8 minutes, which would have made the “original” about 32 minutes, not all that long.  Second, Rachmaninoff considered the fact that the orchestra is almost never silent a fault; I am not sure why that’s a problem. The three movements are Allegro vivace, Largo, and Allegro vivace.

Compared to other times I heard Trifonov, today’s performance didn’t feel nearly as intimate.  Part of the can be attributed to the acoustics, the piano sounded weaker than usual and often couldn’t be heard above the orchestra.  I could hear the Gershwin influence mentioned in the Playbill, but not the Ravel.  He played a short encore that was more delightful than virtuoso, which is fine by me.

One thing I did notice about Rachmaninoff’s work: the movements often end abruptly.  When he was done, he was done; not the type that would put in a long coda.  Interesting, as his music tends to be on the sentimental side.

There are a few well-known conductors with the last name Jarvi, and Neeme is the father.  His conducting was economical, but produced a good sound from the orchestra.  He certainly showed a lot of stamina for a 78 year old.  Only curious fact was he didn’t walk offstage with Trifonov after the concerto.

The audience applauded after each of the symphony’s movements, and Jarvi turned around to acknowledge the crowd.  For me it’s just another reason to lose faith in this concert-going crowd.

I thought it is interesting to program the less popular compositions of Rachmaninoff, something probably won’t be done in a “regular” program with a Rachmaninoff piece.  A sophisticated listen can contrast how diverse the composer’s music can be.  Regrettably I don’t have that level of sophistication.  In any case, perhaps that’s why a Rachmaninoff Festival makes sense?

The New York Timesreview, titled “Resurrecting a Pair of Rachmaninoff’s Flops,” raves about Trifonov’s playing, but is harsh on the orchestra and the conductor, relegating them to an afterthought.

We have been staying in Jersey City, so the rides into and out of NYC were straightforward.  Dinner was again pizza on Columbus Ave.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Cristian Macelaru, conductor; Daniil Trifonov, piano. November 11, 2015.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. Orchestra (Seat W107, $69.50).

Program – Rachmaninoff (1873-1943): A Philharmonic Festival.  Week 1.
The Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Poem after Arnold Bocklin, Op.. 29 (1909).
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934).
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1900-01).

We got tickets to this and next week’s concerts, thinking Trifonov playing Rachmaninoff, so it must be great.  Indeed it is.

The Isle of Dead is inspired by Bocklin's painting of the same title.  James Keller, the annotator, stresses how the tone poem unrolls in three connected sections, with opening Lento in 5/4 meter, followed by Tranquillo in 3/4 time. The last section Largo starts in 4/4 time and eventually yielding to the earlier meters, particularly the 5/4. The sections in turn depict the sea, the island, and death itself.  With the help of a reproduction of Bocklin’s painting, a listener can easily imagine a somber trip to a mausoleum on an island.

I thought I appreciated this more than the last time I heard it.  Going over my notes, I didn’t catch the “Dies Irae” then, today I had no problem catching the many fragments in the composition.  I didn’t hear a complete phrase, though.  Also, I wonder if a more detailed description of the tone poem exists (like in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony we got in Cleveland recently.)  It would add a lot to understanding of how the music relates to the painting.

No doubt many superlatives have been used to describe Trifonov’s playing, deservedly so.  There are many things to marvel about his technique and musicality.  With the Rhapsody, what stood out was how fresh he made it sound.  Not an easy task for a composition that is basically a set of variations, and one of great familiarity. The changes in tempo, in intensity, in lightness of touch, all helped to make this war horse gallop triumphantly from the piano.  The freshness was also helped by the clear transitions from one section to the other, which I don’t recall from the two recent performances of this piece I heard.

That Trifonov is a great musician also came through in the concerto.  It is quite easy to dazzle by simply pounding out the notes, the virtuosity required will leave the audience in awe.  But tonight we had a real dialog between the soloist and the orchestra, with the piano often providing the obbligato part.  There was no doubt who the star was, though.  The three movements are Moderato, Adagio sostenuto, and Allegro scherzando.  The simple second movement was achingly beautiful, with the flute providing the melody.

If one wonders why there is no cadenza, the answer probably is – with a few exceptions - the entirely piece is a cadenza.

Trifonov played an encore cadenza that is a medley based on various well-known tunes.  I recall his doing a program of his own music in Pittsburgh (I believe,) so I wonder if this was his own work. In any case, he certainly seemed to enjoy himself a lot.  A great pianist writing music for himself, I wonder whom that reminds me of. He was still very "Linus" in his posture, although he did straighten himself up every now and then.

We saw Macelaru at the Mostly Mozart Festival this past summer.  He certainly led the Isle of the Dead with great enthusiasm and intensity, and the orchestra responded well.  For the Rachmaninoff pieces he had a great partnership with Trifonov.  I enjoyed today’s concert more than I did the M|M one.  Not sure if it is the orchestra, the program, or the soloist.

We noticed most of the principals were away: at least the concertmaster, the principal cello and viola, and the principal flute; our seats didn’t have a great view of everyone on stage. I know Frank Huang is in Houston (doing Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen,) what are other folks’ excuse?  Sheryl Maples had to do quite a few solo lines, and did very well.  I noticed that she moved around quite a bit more also.

I do wonder if three weeks of Rachmaninoff is too much: I don’t know if I can take so much exhilaration.

We were a bit rushed this afternoon, so only had a light meal before we drove up to the city.  We did buy some food from a street stand, and ate that in our car, before we headed home.  All that, we still got back by 11 pm.

[Note added 11/15. Here is the New York Times review.  For reasons unfathomable to me, he thinks there is no need for a Rachmaninoff Festival, but he did have a lot of good things to say about the concert.  The encore (which I mistakenly typed as "cadenza," since corrected) was indeed Trifonov's work, a "shamelessly flashy arrangement of Strauss's Overture to 'Die Fledermaus.'"]

Friday, November 06, 2015

Metropolitan Opera – Berg’s Lulu. November 5, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony (Seat C120, $122.50).

Story.  Lulu has many lovers, including Dr. Schon, the Painter, the Physician, Schigolch (perhaps,) Alwa (Dr. Schon’s son,) the Prince, Countess Geschwitz, an Acrobat, and a Schoolboy.  She caused havoc in all her lovers’ lives, including the deaths of the Painter (who committed suicide after finding out about her past.)  Schon, fed up with Lulu’s wandering ways, demands Lulu shoot herself with a revolver, but is killed by Lulu instead. Lulu is arrested, tried, and put in prison, where she contracts but survives cholera.  The Countess helps her escape by switching places with her.  Misfortune in the form of collapsing railroad company stock and the threat of being exposed as an escape convict turn Lulu into a prostitute.  She is killed by Jack the Ripper during her first night as a prostitute.

Conductor – Lothar Koenigs.  Lulu – Marlis Petersen; Countess Geschwitz – Susan Graham; Alwa –Daniel Brenna; The Painter, the African Prince – Paul Groves; Dr. Schon, Jack the Ripper – Johan Reuter; The Animal Tamer, the Acrobat – Martin Winkler; Schigolch – Franz Grundheber; The Wardrobe Mistress, the Schoolboy, the Page – Elizabeth DeShong; The Prince, the Manservant, the Marquis – Alan Oke.

I have conquered quite a few concerts in a jetlagged state, indeed while in Hong Kong recently we attended two concerts and one opera.  Today I met my match.  We returned from Hong Kong Tuesday, and slept quite poorly the last two nights.  I didn’t fall asleep, but there were many moments of loss of concentration.  I did okay during the last Act, but attribute that more to my messed up circadian rhythm than the drama of that Act.  Now Act 3 was completed after Berg’s death by Friedrich Cerha, and it has Jack the Ripper in it; perhaps reasons for its being more compelling?

One piece of good news greeted us when we picked up the Playbills.  Inside were slips saying today’s performance would end at 10:50 pm instead of 11:15 pm.  I don’t know how to account for the 25 minutes, but indeed the two intermissions seemed shorter than usual.

Lulu for over forty years was a two-act opera.  Alan Berg died in 1935 and his widow would not allow any modifications to the work during her lifetime.  After her death, Friedrich Cerha finished the score in 1977 based on Berg’s notes.

Shortly after we got seated, a lady dressed formally came onto the open stage and sat at a grand piano.  It was obvious, even from our balcony seats, that the piano was “fake.”  Indeed during the prolog, she would pretend to play the piano while the actual pianist would pound away in the pit.  “Performer” (the title in the roster) Joanna Dudley would remain on stage the entire opera, and in addition to “playing” the piano, she would strike different poses next to, on top of, or inside the piano.  Listed as a soprano on the Met website, she did no singing at all.  Another performer, Andrea Fabi, had a lesser role as a butler.

The set reminds me of the one used in Shostakovich’s The Nose, which was done by the same designer. A lot of boards, newspaper clippings and video projections, and subtitles projected onto the stage are things that come to mind.  Although the basic set is the same, these additions made the backgrounds look quite different for the different scenes.  The intent was to support the drama on stage, but in my jetlagged state I couldn’t decide how effective it was.  In plays Lulu is often performed naked, here (for practical reasons and – no doubt – modesty) pieces of paper with breasts (and other body parts) drawn on them were pasted on Lulu’s dress to depict nudity.  There is also use of pastel colors for the costumes.  Depending on one’s perspective, one can call this trite or effective.  And what’s up with these huge gloves?

Berg was Schoenberg’s contemporary, and adopted the same twelve-tone scale.  With the help of subtitles, the singing sometimes sounded like dialog, and there were certainly no tunes one would walk away with humming.  Indeed Anne and I both wondered how the singers managed to remember the tunes, and how does one tell if someone is off pitch?

With all that caveat, the singing (or dialog) was generally good, adding to the drama.  It turns out I had heard Marlis Petersen before, as Ophelie in Hamlet.  There I had this to say about her singing: “her voice carried well, even during the softer passages.”  Even though the comment is not that specific, I won’t characterize today’s performance as such.  Interestingly, our seats for that opera were in the Dress Circle section (good thing I blog,) so it may well be the acoustics at the different seats.

I frankly got a bit loss with the many paramours of Lulu, but it wasn’t difficult to follow the story of a woman who was either manipulative or couldn’t find what she wanted eventually devolving to becoming a prostitute.  The Playbill contains quite a bit of this-and-that discussion on the philosophical and moral significance of the story.  But was Jack the Ripper really necessary?

Levine was the originally programmed conductor of this series, but his declining health forced him to adopt a less intense performance schedule, and he picked Tannhauser over Lulu.  In his place was Lothar Koenigs.  It probably wouldn’t have made any difference to me, but I had no complaints about how the music came together tonight.  I keep wondering why the Met uses so many international artists, do schools like Julliard, Curtis, and New England Conservatory not train enough qualified musicians?

The applause was quite warm.  Anne thought a gentleman sitting next to us was in tears.  At curtain call the production team members also came out, this being the premiere of a new production.

Curtain Call

In the Playbill there is an interview with the Director William Kentridge in which he had this to say about the score: “There’s no doubt that the fourth time you listen to it, it makes much more sense than the first time; and the eighth time you hear it, every note feels lyrical and appropriate and necessary.” Umm … I don’t even think they will have eight performances this season.  Considering my inability to concentrate, I heard it only half a time.

We had not seen Ellie and Reid for a while, so we stopped by Jersey City before heading into the city.  Was Reid happy to see us!

Here is the NewYork Times review.  The reviewer fills in many details that I didn’t get in my sleep-deprived state.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Taiwan Philharmonic – Shao-Chia Lu, conductor; Chun-Chieh Yen, piano. November 1, 2015.

H.K. Cultural Centre Concert Hall.  Stalls 1 (Seat J41, HK$340.)

Flying Towards the Horizon by Ming-Hsiu Yen (b. 1980.)
Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 25, G minor by Mendelssohn (1809-1847).
Symphony No. 2, Op. 73, D major by Brahms (1833-1897).

This was the third concert we attended in eight days, and I must admit I was a little worn out, especially since our visit to Hong Kong has turned out to be a bit busier than I expected, even though some of the events have been social functions.

Nonetheless, I saw this orchestra in Taiwan about a year ago, and was generally happy with it.  And I thought it would be an interesting contrast to the first concert I saw during the trip: one by Hong Kong Philharmonic.  It turns out the Hong Kong Philharmonic performed Brahms’s first symphony, and this afternoon we would hear the second one.

It is unfortunate that the first thing I noticed about the concert was the large number of empty seats in the auditorium.  I would guess there were fewer than a thousand in the audience, in a hall that seats about 2000.  It is a real pity that either folks in Hong Kong are not that much into classical music, or that the promoters did a terrible job of marketing.

Yen (顔名秀)  is a young composer teaching at the Taipei University of the Arts, and this work was commissioned in celebration of the school’s 30th anniversary.  Per the Program, “the inspiration came from observing the swallows that stayed in Taipei’s Guandu area during spring and summer in 2012.”  So the music describes how the swallows raise their young, including the death of one of them.  When I think of swallows, I tend to think of small, elegant birds flitting about, chirping gently.  The music started quietly enough, but eventually climaxed to such an extent that one would think the whole building where the swallows built their nests collapsed, with the baby birds screaming (and I wonder how they could scream so loudly.)  The piece lasted a bit less than 15 minutes, but I quite enjoyed it, even though I couldn’t quite correlate it with what I thought swallows would sound like.

Mendelssohn was all of 22 when he wrote his first piano concerto.  The relative short piece (about 25 minutes) is full of energy.  The three movements (Molto allegro con fuoco, Andante, and Presto – Molto allegro e vivace) are performed without a pause.  Certainly Yen was up for the technical demands; indeed he looked relaxed during even the more challenging passages.  The balance with the (reduced) orchestra was excellent, and the cooperation between the soloist and the ensemble was evident.  The one complaint I have is many passages sounded muddled; we sat in similar seats a week ago and the piano sounded nice and crisp.

I am not very familiar with this piece, and am glad to have a chance to hear it.  For encore Yen (嚴俊傑) played a piece based on the Wedding March from Lohengrin.  (Note: the composer and the pianist’s last names are different Chinese characters; pianist Yen also teaches at a Taiwan university.)

The Brahms Symphony was very enjoyable.  There are many places – especially in the fourth movement – that could sound quite chaotic if not executed carefully.  For the most part the orchestra did an admirable job, every now and then someone (mostly in the second violin section) would jump the gun and come in a little early.  Similarly, most “naked” brass passages were gracefully rendered, except for some tentativeness here and there.

We heard this symphony in late September played by the Cleveland Symphony.  I must say I don’t think I enjoyed that performance more.  The four movements are Allegro non troppo, Adagio non troppo, Allegretto grazioso, and Allegro con spirito.

Lu (呂紹嘉) conducted with quite a bit of movement, but drew elegant lines from the orchestra.  If he, or the others, was disappointed in the audience, it didn’t show.

I, on the other hand, just wonder if anything could be done to raise the level of interest in these cultural events.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Korea National Opera – Soul Mate by June Hee Lim. October 31, 2015.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre.  Stalls 2 (Seat S23, HK$315.)

Story.  For economic and political reasons, Mongwan and Seohyang are arranged to be married by their parents.  Neither wants to do so without love, so they switch places with their assistants Seodong and Ippuni to spy on the other person.  The two pairs end up falling in love with one another.  After their parents (who do not know of the new development) tear up the marriage contract, the two couples decide to elope.  Things are sorted out eventually and the two couples are married.

Conductor – Docki Kim.  Seohyang – Whal Ran Seo, Mongwan – Seung Mook Lee, Ippuni – Hyon Lee, Seodong – Dae San Noh.
Scala Opera Chorus: Byung Wook Lim – Conductor.
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

There are quite a few sopranos of Korean descent in the Metropolitan Opera, and some of them have taken on major roles (such as Gilda in Rigoletto.)  Many of these singers have been trained in Korea, so in my way of thinking Korea National Opera must be of certain standing.  Even though I had no idea what this opera would sound like, I was quite ready to give the performance a go, at a (discounted) price of about US$40 per ticket.

Poster advertisement for the opera found inside an MTR walkway.

Curtain call.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Actually I enjoyed the performance very much.

The set is very simple, in the center is a multi-level stage which rotates (it did so only during the last act to simulate movement of a ship.)  Props are dropped and raised as necessary to create the necessary sceneries, and projections on the backdrop show a moving moon and falling leaves.

The story is simple.  Indeed the synopsis of each half was first projected onto the displays on the two sides, and it is even simpler than what I summarize above.  As there is this “symmetry” between the major characters, and between the two families, many lines got used twice, and some got used four times.  Even though I am not good with Korean names, I had little trouble following the story.  And it is interesting to note all the names have meaningful Chinese translations.  Ippuni means “young beautiful girl” and Seodong means “book attendant.”

As a rule, there is chorus singing and dancing at the beginning and end of each act.  The artists are dressed in Korean costumes, the singing is great, and the movements are well-choreographed.  You wonder how much shorter the opera would be if those elements are eliminated.  At the end there was this interminable sequence of verses that made me feel things were dragging on for the first time.  With all that the opera runs about two hours.

To my ears, the music is mostly western with some foreign (which I assume to be Korean) elements thrown in.  It is generally tonal, easy to get, and sounded simple enough.  I could recognize most of the instruments and attributed the new sounds as coming from Korean instruments (flute and percussion; the Program has a listing of them.)  At times I felt like I was in a Broadway show.  At other times I felt like I was watching Lakmi when the two ladies sang a song that began like the “Flower Duet.”  Yet other moments reminded me of Madama Butterfly.

I suppose music critics have a lot to say about all that, and I could probably make a few more pretentious statements about the merits of the opera.  That would detract from the gut-level appeal it has for me, and that includes the simple story.

What is unquestionable is the quality of the singing, which was uniformly excellent.  I don’t know Korean, but with the aid of the projected subtitles, it was easy to follow the story along.  Taken as a whole the story is pedestrian, but taken one aria at a time there were many poignant moments where one could get caught up in the moment.

The orchestra and the conductor were generally hidden from view where we sat.  I thought the sound coming from the pit was great.  With the many “distractions” from the vocal singing, dancing, and scenery changes, I didn’t get to pay lot of attention to how the orchestral music sounded.

The word “grand” wouldn’t be used if I were to give the auditorium a name (it holds 1734 seats per Wikipedia.)  The seats are comfortable, the acoustics generally good, but the stage seems a bit small.  Having the subtitles projected onto the two sides of the stage proved somewhat distracting for me.  This was the first time we attended an event there, if memory serves.

We had a light snack with some Hope International folks before the opera, and most shops were closed when we got out (Hong Kong is overrated as an all-night city.)  We did manage to find something to eat (McDonalds and dim sum) at the Tai Po MTR station at around 11 pm.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Hong Kong Philharmonic – Christoph Eschenbach, conductor; Tzimon Barto, piano. October 24, 2015.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall.  Stalls 1 (Seat G38, HK$390.)

Carnival Overture by Dvorak.
Piano Concerto in F by Gershwin.
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 by Brahms.

We are visiting Hong Kong for about two weeks, and there are two or three concerts that have great potential.  This was the first one.  As seniors (age 60 and up) we got a 50% discount, so we got our seats in the 6th row (but called “G”) for about US$50 each, which is a great deal.

I have a very high opinion of HK Phil, and today’s performance was up to my expectations, with a couple of minor quibbles on the last piece, and I will get to those.

Dvorak’s Carnival Overture is an oft-performed piece, and there is absolutely no reason to confuse it with Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals.  Yet I managed to do so, and wondered why there was no description of the individual numbers and the animals they describe, and how they manage to squeeze in so much music in the program.  No matter, once I got myself straightened out, the short Overture became very enjoyable and lively, as its name would suggest.  A great start for the evening.

We last heard Gershwin’s Concerto in F performed by Yuja Wang, with the Michael Tislon Thomas conducting the London Symphony, in Avery Fisher Hall.  My recollection – confirmed by a review of my blog entry – was that it was not a particularly impressive performance, with one of the complaints that we couldn’t hear the piano well given where we sat.  My reaction today was completely different.  I can’t tell who was the better pianist, but the performance by Barto felt intimate, more like a piece of chamber music, with excellent give-and-take between the soloist and members of the orchestra.  Instead of straining to hear the music and trying to understand it, today I sat back and enjoyed it.

I had not heard of Barto before, and was surprised to find out he is American, born in Florida.  And he looked older than the picture in the Program Notes would suggest: he had a full head of black hair when the picture was taken; and let’s say the hair has changed a great deal.  He did seem to perform the piece with ease and aplomb, despite the many difficult passages.  He performed an encore that sounded like one of Gershwin’s jazz pieces.

Much has been said about Brahms’s first symphony and how the completion of it gave Brahms the confidence that his composition skills were good.  So it is quite amazing that it is not nearly as frequently programmed as Brahms’s other symphonies.  I don’t recall ever heard it live before.

And there is no reason why it is performed more regularly.  It is complex, but not as complex as Brahms’s later works.  At 45 or so minutes it isn’t short, but didn’t felt repetitive at all.  Per the Program Notes, Wagner made the disparaging remark that he heard the entire first movement without hearing “an idea, a melody that irresistibly fills the universe with grandeur and emotion.”  I certain thought it was easy to understand, and the one melody that I knew (the chorale-like melody) was lovely.

The Program Notes had something interesting to say about Gershwin and Brahms’s background.  Both had humble beginnings, and Brahms at a young age had to support his family by playing the piano in seedy salons.  The Notes associate this with Brahms’ being unmarried his whole life.  Perhaps a bit much.

My only complaint was one violin player was playing a bit too loud (I believe it was the concertmaster.)  And someone came in early.  Both no-nos as far as I am concerned.  The latter could be attributed to Eschenbach being a guest conductor.

There were solo and ensemble passages by various instruments (I recall the violin, horn, and oboe) and they were all done very well.  Both Anne and I thought the timpanist could be a bit more into it, though.  The conducting was energetic, with Eschenbach trying to coax out different lines.

All in all, just minor quibbles for an otherwise lovely evening of great music.  The attendance was quite good, much to my relief.

We left after dinner in Taipo, and got back at about 11:30 pm.  The trains were not as crowded as they used to be.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Metropolitan Opera – Wagner’s Tannhauser. October 19, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Dress Circle (Seat E120, $147.50).

Story.  Tannhauser abandons his love Elisabeth and lives with Venus.  He eventually decides to leave Venusberg to go back to Elisabeth.  However, his living with Venus is considered a sin that can only be forgiven by him making a pilgrimage to Rome.  When the pilgrims return, and Tannhauser is not among them, Elisabeth is broken with grief and is on the verge of dying.  Tannhauser appears, and explains that his transgression can no more be forgiven than the papal staff bearing leaves again.  Venus appears when Tannhauser summons her, but disappears when Elisabeth’s funeral procession comes down the valley.  Tannhauser also dies.  Another group of pilgrims arrives, and brings the Pope’s staff which has blossomed.

Conductor – James Levine.  Venus – Michelle DeYoung, Tannhauser – Johan Botha, Elisabeth – Eva-Maria Westbroek.

Due to our expectation of being quite busy this year, we bought only a “3-ticket” package for this season.  And we had to switch the first one, from October 27 to today, as we will be out of town later this week.  So the decision to curtail the commitment was a good one.

This was one of Wagner’s earlier works, and before he fully adopted his later writing style using leitmotifs and the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”).

Indeed this opera felt very different from Wagner’s later works (the Ring Cycle operas and Tristan and Isolde come to mind.)  A good illustration would be the many orchestral pieces (or mostly orchestral) such as the overture and ballet at the beginning.  The two combined lasted about twenty minutes, and to the uninitiated (such as me) at times sounded like Beethoven or even Verdi.  Most of my Wagner exposure has been his later style, so this was both unexpected  and welcome, although at times cognitive dissonance would come in as I had to keep reminding myself this was Wagner.

The set was first used in 1977, and is of the “realistic” kind – as much as Venusberg can be realistic, granted.  While I have no problem with that, there was again some cognitive dissonance as they have no semblance to the sets used in the Ring Cycle, Parsifal, or Tristan and Isolde.  I don’t recall this being a problem with Meistersinger though.

Levine conducted the premiere of the 1977 production, this is close to 40 years later.  Meanwhile the maestro has suffered through some health problems.  He still needed the special wheelchair, today he would be pushed in and out for the different acts; the last few times they did a bit more to “hide” this from the audience.  I don’t know whether he is continuing to recover, or his health has deteriorated recently, but today he seemed to favor the right side, a lot.  This was a rather long opera (total performance time around 3:30 hours), and he appeared quite energetic.  Certainly the sound of the orchestra is as good as I have heard it.  I do wonder how he compares with the 1977 Levine though.

When I did the ticket exchange, I paid a bit extra to upgrade to the Dress Circle.  It may just be the great singing voices (of everyone involved,) or the acoustics are that much better.  All the three principals did a marvelous job.  While the sympathetic figure is Elisabeth, Botha as Tannhauser did the most singing.  He did very well, his voice projecting clearly, oftentimes against a full orchestra, sometimes with a full chorus added in.  Both DeYoung and Westbroek fulfilled their roles well.  I did think every now and then they could swap roles and would do equally well (I don’t know if the ranges of the roles are the same.)  My one complaint would be they could use a softer voice every now and then; well, that, and they were all on the stout side.

The minstrels held a small instrument they referred to as the harp when they sang, with the harpist in the pit doing the real strumming.  So this opera is one where the harp got a lot of exposure, with many virtuoso passages; the principal Emmanuel Ceysson did a superb job.

There were many other singing roles, and several choral numbers.  Again uniformly good.  Most of the choral numbers were for men, though.

When I read the synopsis in the Program Notes, I got the impression this was going to be a poorly concocted story that wouldn’t quite hang together.  Wagner created the story by combining elements of different and even unrelated sources.  In this case a mythical realm of Venus, a story of the Pope’s staff, a contest of medieval minstrels, and Saint Elisabeth; a recipe for confusion.  However, I found the plot to be quite easy to follow, and some of the action shed light on said confusion.  For example, being in love with Venus is condemned, and thus required penance and forgiveness.  Wagner also had a clever construction where Tannhauser spat out the fact he was with Venus during the minstrel song contest.  A curious fact: the name Tannhauser was not used in the opera at all, instead he was referred to by his given name Heinrich.

Looking over what I wrote, I am surprised how positive it is.  I never know how I will react to Wagner’s work the first time I hear it.  I don’t remember any that I would take such a liking on the first hearing.  This is by no means an easy opera to perform, and much credit has to be given to Levine: whatever condition his physical health is, he certainly maintained a high level of excellence throughout the program.

Anne had to go into Flushing for a morning meeting, so she left our house a bit after 7 am.  It was close to 1 am when we got home.  Our dinner was slices of pizza.

The New YorkTimes review is generally positive on Levine’s performance, although the reviewer points out several places where things got a bit sloppy.  He also did a rundown of each singer’s performance.  His remark “singing comes first in opera” (similar to what I have said before) comes before his description of Botha as being hefty.  He spared the leading ladies any similar remarks, though.  The sad news is Levine has withdrawn from conducting Lulu, with a new production planned in large part for him.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Boston Symphony – Andris Nelsons, conductor; Lars Vogt, piano. October 10, 2015.

Symphony Hall, Boston.  Second Balcony (Section 28C, Seat D2, $66.)

“Divisions” for Orchestra (2014) by Sebastian Currier (b. 1959).
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (premiere 1803), by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 (1877), by Brahms (1833-1897).

We are visiting the Boston area for the long weekend.  There were not too many tickets left at 7 pm, when we got to Symphony Hall.  We decided to pass on the $145 prime seats, and opted for these $66 tickets instead.  Seats 1 and 2 are at the end of the center row, with the right side of the stage (cellos and basses, mostly) blocked.  We managed to shift into two vacant seats towards the center, and that made a big difference.  Symphony Hall reminds me of the great European concert halls I have been too, with great acoustics, but there are too many seats that would require a lot of leaning forward or sideways to get a good view of the stage.

Let me jump to the conclusion right away: this was a great concert.

My appreciation started with the first piece, a modern composition written to commemorate the start of the first world war.  A group of orchestras (BSO among them) commissioned ten different works for this purpose, and this is the last of the ten to be performed.

With most modern pieces, the best conclusion I can draw is “I may enjoy it more if I get to listen to it more often.”  Here my appreciation is immediate.  The composition is unmistakably modern, but it had a structure that was easy to grasp, and conveyed the message readily.  I quote from the composer: “My starting point was the rather obvious observation that we humans are a jumble of contradictory impulses: at our best so creative, insightful, and altruistic, at our worst so inexplicably short-sighted, destructive, and sadistic.”  The construction of the piece is more complicated than that, and to get how the piece actually progresses would take multiple listenings, at least in my case.  Yet it was easy to like.

The way the orchestra started the Beethoven piece really justified their reputation as an organization that plays with great precision.  With the great acoustics of the hall, the phrase “wow, this is clean” readily came to mind.  That set the tone for the entire performance.  With the exception of a few places where the piano was a bit too soft, it was a performance worthy of an engineered CD recording.  The sound was warm without being sugary, and the interpretation thoughtful without being too emotional. As with familiar pieces, I have in my mind how a great performance would be like, and this one met and often exceeded my expectations.  The three movements are Allegro con brio, Largo, and Rondo: Allegro.

Paul Lewis was the soloist already scheduled, but had to withdraw because of an “unanticipated surgical procedure.”  I had heard him a couple of times in New York, and Lars Vogt once this summer.  From what I can recall from those performances, the substitution is not a downgrade at all.  The audience rewarded the performance with a warm applause.

Brahms’s second symphony is a concert staple, and I have been quite familiar with it since my college days.  This is a symphony that’s easy to get musically, even though the Program Notes calls it “perhaps the most regularly misread of Brahms’s major works.”  The ambiguity starts with Brahms’s own descriptions of this work: to his friend Eduard Hanslick he wrote “It’ll sound so cheerful and lovely …,” but to Clara Schumann he described it as “elegiac.”  The symphony comprises of four movements: Allegro non troppo, Adagio non troppo, Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino), and Allegro con spirito.

The other “characteristic” is that even though the structure of the composition is relatively straightforward, and the different melodies are easy to get, most performances I have heard sounded muddled.  Or, not as “clean” as it should sound.  Not even the Boston Symphony managed to make it sound clean, and now I wonder if that is possible at all.  Some symphonies (Tchaikovsky Pathetique comes to mind) are meant to be wild, although I never would have put Brahms’s second in that category.  All that aside, this was an enjoyable performance.  The piece calls for many solo passages from the woodwind and brass instruments, and they all did a marvelous job.  In the description there was no mention of tuba, but interestingly one was present, giving the brass section a solid footing.  (Wikepedia reference does mention a tuba.)

Andris Nelsons is a young conductor (born 1978), this is his second year with the BSO, which had gone without a music director for a while since Levine resigned a few years ago.  I had seen him conducting at the Met a few years back, but frankly forgot how he did (and the conductor usually isn’t the focus in an opera performance anyway.)  I was impressed with how he moved the music forward.  It did seem he seldom stood straight: he leaned forward, sideways, and backwards a lot; he also crouched down a lot, but I didn’t see him jump all that much.  A “more is more” type, but gets the job well done.

Our son’s place, where we are staying, is a bit less than a mile from the Assembly T-station, Anne and I walked there to catch the subway into town.  It was a bit on the cold side (high 40s) when we walked back.  We had only time for a quick bite at a nearby Panera Bread.

Friday, October 02, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Emanuel Ax, piano. October 1, 2015.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat V105, $69.50.)

Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880) by Brahms (1833-97).
Canta-Concerto (2014) by Marc Neikrug (b. 1946).
Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major for piano and orchestra, Op. 83 (1878-81) by Brahms.

This was our first concert of the season.  After having attended three out-of-town concerts, I was ready to “go home” to more familiar surroundings.

Two of the pieces are by Brahms.  The Overture was written by the composer during his summer vacation at Bad Ischl.  The Playbill says Brahms said the piece could be called either “dramatic” or “tragic.”  Various commentators have attributed a story to the music, including Goethe’s Faust.  The composer said there was none – but evidently no one knows for sure if he was serious.

The more interesting point made in the Playbill is that “The Academic Overture” was written at about the same time, and stands in contrast to Tragic.  One would think it would be illuminating to hear the two overtures in quick succession, but not today.

The orchestra put in a superb performance.  They were precise, had great dynamics, and generally produced a wonderful sound.  I wouldn’t have used the word “tragic” to describe it; and tried as I did, I couldn’t hear any Faust in it either.

Before playing the Canta-Concerto, Gilbert and the composer came out and talked for a bit.  This was the world premiere of the composition, and it was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.  Indeed one wonders why the voice is seldom used as a “solo instrument” since a lot of soloists are asked to make their instruments sing like a voice.  The Playbill mentions one such composition from 1943, written by the Russian composer Gliere, titled “Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra.”  I thought it was bad form when Neikrug said “I can say that, since the composer is dead: it isn’t very good.” The vocal solo utilizes different sounds (proto-language) that Gilbert characterized as “gibberish,” but he qualified that by saying its like listening to an opera in Czech without subtitles, one can still tell there is emotion in the sound.

The 25-minute work is in four movements: (I) Moderato q=72, (II) Mosso q=72, (III) Adagio q=54, (IV) Vivo q=92.  The second movement is especially short.

It may be unfair to make an assessment after one hearing, and of a new genre at that.  But I must say I am tempted to use the same words to describe this piece as Neikrug used for Gliere’s piece.  It is difficult enough to follow the music, but the various sounds made by the soloist were simply too distracting for me to focus on the overall structure of the movements.  While my appreciation of contemporary music is usually at the “I can tolerate it” level, every now and then there are pieces I would like to hear again to get a better understanding.  There is no desire in this instance.  I also would take issue with Gilbert’s statement.  In the case of an opera the listener generally has some idea of the storyline and with the help of the action and scenary can associate the emotion expressed in the voice with what is happening in the story (although in my experience, often wrong.)  Here there is no story.  I do wonder how the music would come across if a regular instrument (say a flute) is used.

Sasha Cooke has a great voice that projects well.  I just wished she had done something in the more traditional repertoire – say Britten.  I heard her a couple of years back in Britten’s Spring Symphony.  To use the voice as an instrument and not take advantage of its ability to speak is such a waste.

Brahms’s second piano concerto is often called “serene and warm.”  To me those adjectives apply only when this work is compared with his first concerto.  This is especially true with how the two pieces begin: one with the roll of the timpani followed by the full orchestra, the other with a (soft) horn introduction.  Of course in the slow movement there is this lovely tune played by the cello, which Carter Brey just nailed.  (The orchestra seating was rearranged so the cello section was on the outside.)

I have always found Emanuel Ax’s playing thoughtful, and have been amazed how he can tell a story with how he puts the performance together.  He did that tonight, but the performance was a notch below his usual high standard: at times the sound was a bit muddled, and the music sometimes didn’t seem to go try to go anywhere.  But we are talking about an “A” performance instead of an “A+” one here.

It was good to see the familiar faces, and the few new ones.  In the Bass section there is a young Chinese woman listed as “replacement/extra.”  Case Scaglione, who just got promoted to Associate Conductor recently, is gone.

The most obvious change was of course the new concertmaster, Frank Huang.  We had seem him a couple of times last year when he was auditioning for the job.  He seemed to enjoy himself, and well he should.  Still moved around a bit much by Dicterow standards, perhaps the audience will get used to that.  It is noteworthy (to me at least) that he stayed during Ax’s performance.  There were no solo passages for him, so I looked up the New York Times review for last week’s performance, where the concertmaster had considerable playtime as Pauline in Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben.”  The reviewer had something good to say about him in an otherwise critical review of the program.

We stopped by Ellie’s place before going into the city via PATH and the subway.  I stepped into one of these pools from the recent rains on the sidewalk, the wet shoe felt quite uncomfortable afterwards.  It was about 11:45 pm when we got home.

[Note on October 4: Here is the New York Times review.  The reviewer had a lot of good things to say about the program.]

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – Louis Langree, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. September 26, 2015.

Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio.  Orchestra 2 (Seat 29-8, $70.)

Overture to Fidelio Op 72 (1814) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra (1931) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14a (1830) by Berlioz (1803-1869).

We again got to the venue early enough to hear the pre-concert talk, by CSO’s director of artistic administration Isaac Thompson (I think.)  His first remark was this is also a 3-B concert, although not quite the traditional 3-B people think of (and what we heard last night, with some qualifications.)  He then proceeded to describe the pieces on the program.  It took Beethoven on and off ten years to finish Fidelio, and he wrote four different overtures for it.  The Lenore Overtures are all popular concert pieces, and the one heard today is now considered the standard.  Bartok was a brilliant pianist and he wrote the piece with himself in mind as the soloist, trying to make it easier to play than the incredibly difficult first concerto.  In that regard he didn’t succeed – not that I would be able to tell.  Thompson’s take on Symphonie fantastique is similar to what I heard in Lincoln Center a couple of years back, although he didn’t mention the role of Dies Irae in the final movement.

Built in 1878, Music Hall is a large building, and the main auditorium. seating over 3500 people per Wikipedia, is the fourth largest concert hall in the United States.  Its acoustics are also supposed to be quite good.  Even though we had the “cheap seats” in the back, we thought in general it lived up to its reputation; however, the humming of the air conditioning made some of the softer passages a bit difficult to get.

I have heard Fidelio in concert, and - even though I can’t tell them apart - I know the overtures quite well.  They are all enjoyable pieces, and it is puzzling to me why the opera is not staged more often; indeed I am not aware of its being staged anywhere.  In any case, the overture was a good start for the evening, the six minutes went by very quickly.  Langree elicited a good sound, with great contrast and drama, from the orchestra.  I wondered whether he needed such exaggerated movements to get what he wanted; I would end up wondering about this the entire evening.

The 25 or so minute Bartok concerto consists of three movements: Allegro, Adagio-Presto-Adagio, and Allegro Molto.  The first movement was an interesting dialog between the soloist and the orchestra (no strings.)  Initially there were only strings in the second movement, and the whole movement had a mysterious air to it.  The quiet passages were played a bit too quietly, so much so that coughs, rustling papers, and creaky chairs (including mine) became major distractions; and it was then that I noticed the air conditioning’s sound.  The third wasn’t quite a free-for-all, but was wild enough.  I had never heard this before, so a lot of the music just swept by me.  The Program Notes also talks of Bartok’s love of symmetry.  For this concerto the outer movements are fast, and the middle movement is slow-fast-slow. I did get the second movement, and don’t most concertos have fast first and last movements?  As with other Bartok pieces, I am sure I will like it if given the chance to hear it more often. 

Bronfman played an encore, probably by Schumann.

Even the subject matter for Symphonie fantastique is a bit macabre, it is a very attractive piece of work.  Berlioz was about 30 years younger than Beethoven, but their musical styles were vastly different – you would never mistake the two of them.  This was a great performance, and I could tell the audience was captivated by the story of unrequited love, drug-induced hallucination, death, and hell.  The only thing we missed was the dialog between the oboe and the English horn, our seats were such that we heard the oboe’s sound as reflected from the stage, so didn’t get the “stereo” effect.  Also, many in the audience thought the piece ended after the fourth movement.  It is always a good idea to read the Program Notes beforehand.  For the record, the five movements are (i) Reveries, Passions; (ii) A Ball; (iii) Scene in the Country; (iv) March to the Scaffold; and (v) Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath.

The Program Notes also contains a very detailed description of the piece and Berlioz’s history with the subject of the composition: Harriet Smithson.  The score calls for six harps, only four were used for the performance.  While understandable for practical and budgetary reasons, they could have used the two additional harps.

At the beginning of the concert, the President of the CSO came out and announced that (i) they just completed contract negotiations with the musicians, and they are set for another 5 years; (ii) they successfully raised $26 million so they could add 14 players to their organization; and (iii) someone just endowed a new chair for a horn player.  In contrast to Pittsburgh, attendance was good today.  And we are talking about a much larger auditorium.

When the term CSO is mentioned, most people think of the other orchestra: Chicago Symphony.  I assume they are not in the same league yet, but it won’t surprise me that in a few years Cincinnati will be associated with CSO for many folks outside of this area.  Indeed they are going to Lincoln Center this season.

It’s been an exhausting few days, but Anne and I both enjoyed the trip.  It is not such a crazy idea, and we might even try some other combinations of orchestras in the future.  I didn't come to Cincinnati with high expectations, and was pleasantly surprised.  I often joke that people should go out more, that applies to me as well.

[Note added: The orchestra played the National Anthem with the audience on their feet at the beginning; I don't recall ever seeing that.  Also, all three conductors are Europeans; nothing wrong with that, but where are the well-known American conductors?]

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra – Manfred Honeck, conductor; Augustin Hadelich, violin. September 25, 2015.

Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, PA.  Orchestra Center (Seat L108, $79.)

Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for Unaccompanied Violin in D minor, BWV 1004 (1720) by Bach (1685-1750), arranged for String Orchestra by Hideo Saito.
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1811-12) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 77 (1878) by Brahms (1833-1897).

This is the second day of our 3-day concert trip.  We ate a dinner at an India restaurant near our downtown Pittsburgh hotel, and were able to attend the 7 pm pre-concert talk, by the young assistant conductor of the orchestra, Francesco Lecce-Chong.

He pointed out the obvious, which was that this concert is an often-talked-about-but-seldom-programmed BBB concert: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  The purist would say the first B is somewhat adulterated, the original was for a solo violin, but tonight we would hear an arrangement made for a string orchestra.  We had heard a couple of times the arrangement made for one piano, left hand, and Lecce-Chong pointed out a couple of other arrangements, including one for a violin with piano accompaniment.  He played some excerpts from the different “versions,” and they sounded very different.

Many people consider Beethoven’s Eighth to be somewhat out of place.  The fifth has its well-known “victory” theme, the sixth is the first symphony as “program music,” the seventh is revered as the apotheosis of the dance by none other than Richard Wagner, and we all know the seminal ninth as the Choral Symphony.  Lecce-Chong used a few points to illustrate the uniqueness of the Eighth, including the fact that Beethoven threw tradition progression in the face, sometimes by repeating a chord (or “dischord”) several times.  Indeed, I can hum the melodies of many movements of the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th readily from memory, but I have some trouble recalling those from the 8th, although I am not unfamiliar with the work.  The four movements are Allegro vivace e con brio, Allegretto scherzando, Tempo di minuetto, and Allegro vivace.  Beethoven did away with the slow movement and put in both a scherzo and a minuet.

Lecce-Chong also had a slightly different take on Brahms’ compulsion for needing his work to be perfect.  Most would attribute that partially to Beethoven’s huge shadow, and Lecce-Chong posited that Brahms felt confident after completing his first symphony that he in quick succession finished Piano concerto No. 2, the violin concerto, and Symphony No. 2.  He describes the violin’s part as virtuoso not for virtuoso’s sake, so a conductor never feels he/she is there simply to keep time during some of the flourisher moments, and thus there is a great partnership between the soloist and the orchestra.  He also noted that both Brahms’ and Beethoven’s Violin Concertos are in the same key.  I am in awe of how Beethoven managed to compose such a memorable work using such basic ingredients as scales and arpeggios.  In that sense Brahms had nothing over Beethoven.  Reasonable points, and of some interest.

Too bad only about 40 or 50 people sat through the 30-minute talk; and this was in the main auditorium, seating 2676 per Wikipedia.  Anne felt the building gives a feeling of intimacy.  I just thought there is a lot of elbow room – unlike Avery Fisher (now David Geffen) or Carnegie Hall.

As it got close to the start time of 8 pm, I was wondering where the people were.  The center row we were in, 11th from the front, has about 16 seats.  Six were occupied.  There was a large swath of empty seats in front of us.  The two rows behind us were quite empty also, although things were better in the back.  The balcony holds many seats, I couldn’t see up from where I was.  All I can say is I felt bad, but I also had the nagging feeling that this was not unusual.

I was surprised when the first piece was performed by a full orchestra, woodwind, brass, and percussion included.  It sounded like Bach’s Chaconne, but I at times doubted it.  I double checked the Program Notes, it kept on telling me the orchestration was for strings.  In any case, it was a nice piece of music that would be a good test of an orchestra’s range, as diverse tempo, volume, and degrees of difficulty are called for.  If I were to give out a grade, this would be a good but not exceptional performance.  There were quite a few rapid runs in various parts of the orchestra that sounded quite muddled.

The orchestra did much better with the Beethoven symphony.  Technically it may be a little easier than the arranged Bach Chaconne, it was still not an easy feat to keep it all together with the many starts and stops that are typical in Beethoven’s work – may be more than usual, per Lecce-Chong.  The current orchestra roster has no one as the concertmaster, and for this series the “guest” is Noah Geller, the concertmaster at Kansas City Symphony.  Auditioning, no doubt.  His instrument was quite prominent during this piece, which to me is a no-no for any section player.  However, he played very well, and didn’t “stand out” as much during the next piece.  Perhaps someone dropped a hint during the intermission?

I had heard Hadelich a couple of times before.  I recall I was not blown away with his New York Philharmonic performance, but really liked what he did with New Jersey Symphony in Princeton.  I called his encore (Paganini’s Caprice No. 24) perfect (or some words to that effect.)

He was a bit shaky at the beginning, not that he got any notes wrong, or he was visibly nervous.  But the sound was harsh and somewhat distant (remember, we were in row 11.)  A few minutes in, things improved greatly, the same instrument (the 1723 “Ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivarius) sounded smooth and intimate. Overall it was an excellent performance.  The first movement – Allegro non troppo - was so brilliantly done that I was sure people would applaud (they didn’t,) the second movement – Adagio -with its well-known oboe introduction, showcased a dialog between the orchestra and the soloist, and the third movement – Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace – had the soloist and orchestra challenging each other to great heights.  Many have described this concerto as one where the soloist works against the orchestra; Lecce-Chong would disagree with that assessment, and I agree with him.  While the violin is not the instrument that carries the bulk of the melody, the movement would not be close to complete without the plaintive voice of the instrument.

The applause was thunderous.  As encore Hadelich played Caprice No. 5 of Paganini.  It was impressive, although I wouldn’t use the term “perfect” in this instance.

While there are a few things to quibble with the concert, I actually enjoyed it, not only at the direct level, but also at a more intellectual level.  “Intellectual” is perhaps too strong a word, but the experience gave me new insight into several issues.

We had seen Honeck a couple of times before, most recently last summer during the Salzburg Festival.  He, and the orchestra, deserve a better audience that tonight’s attendance would indicate.  Pittsburgh is supposedly going through a revival, let’s hope the arts scene improves as well.

It will be a five hour drive to Cincinnati tomorrow.