Monday, January 19, 2015

Budapest Festival Orchestra – Ivan Fischer, conductor; Anna Lucia Richter, soprano; Isabelle Faust, violin. January 18, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat T12, $65.)

Three Songs (arr. Sandor Balogh) by Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847).
Violin Concerto in E minor (1844) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847).
Symphony No. 3 in F major (1883) by Brahms.

I knew that Fanny Mendelssohn was a great musician, but didn’t know (or forgot) that she was also a prolific conductor.  As it was deemed unseemly for a woman in then bourgeois Germany society (this term from Playbill) to have a professional career, much of her work was unpublished, and the first publications were under Felix’s name.  This also explains why there was no date associated with these songs.  It was only when the dates were put right next to each other that I realized Fanny and Felix died in the same year.

Ivan Fischer explained he picked Fanny Mendelssohn’s work to encourage women composers.  I would think a better message would be sent by programming works by women that are still living.  But who am I to argue with interesting programming?

The three songs are Die Mainacht (May Night), Ferne (Distance), and Gondellied (Song of the the Gondolier).  The lyrics are all in the “lovelorn” category, the music generally is sweet and pensive.  I do like songs like this (Tchaikovsky’s “None but the lonely heart” comes to mind), but probably need to give them a chance to grow on me.  The soloist Richter is young (a New York Times article put her at 24 as of October, 2014), and she sang quite clearly, albeit a tad unrefined.  I liked it.

This was also the first time I heard the German violinist Isabelle Faust.  Overall it was an enjoyable performance, a result of a competent performance.  The last time I heard this concerto was Gil Shaham with the New Jersey Symphony.  Shaham has this habit of moving around a lot while he performs; Faust was practically glued to the stage.  Other than some problems with the loud double stops at the end, she performed without a glitch.  However, it was a good performance, but not an inspired one.  She plays the “Sleeping Beauty” 1704 Stradivarius.  The instrument sounded surprisingly weak, although its clear tone would confirm it’s being a Strad.

Neither Anne nor I was familiar with the Brahm’s symphony, with the exception of the third movement.  I would agree with the Playbills description: “more than one commentator has described this work as ‘Olympian,’ a sobriquet that is not inapt …” I am not the only wishy-washy person out there.  In any case, it was an easy piece to enjoy on the first hearing, even though I didn’t get the “ascending three-note motif” that opens the symphony.  The orchestra sounded sloppy at times, but responded well to Fischer’s direction.

After a couple of curtain calls, Fischer said he would conclude with another composition by Fanny Mendelssohn.  When the orchestra members stood up, and Richter returned to the stage, I thought it was going to be an a cappella solo piece.  It turns out to be a choral piece, with all the orchestra musician doing the singing.  And they did it so well that I whispered to Anne: who needs the New York Choral Artists?

The New York Timesreview is quite positive.  The review calls Faust’s performance “reticent,” explained that it was Sandor Balogh that did the orchestration, and that the encore piece was “Morgengruss,” one of Fanny Mendelssohn’s six “Gartenlieder” (“Garden Songs”) for a cappella choir; all in all very educational.

Being a rainy Sunday, we couldn’t find off-street parking.  ICON still offered coupons that beat parking at the Lincoln Center garage.  On our way back we stopped by Jersey City to have dinner with Ellie, Kuau, and Reid.

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor. January 16, 2015.

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor.  January 16, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 2 Left (Seat BB104, $67.00).

Requiem Mass (1873-1875) by Verdi (1813-1901).

Angela Meade, soprano; Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano; Russell Thomas, tenor; Eric Owens, bass-baritone.
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, director.

I am typing this on January 19, only 3 days after the concert itself, but need to be brief as I also wanted to finish up the review on a January 18 concert.

Another reason for the brevity of course was that we saw this concert last April with the New Jersey Symphony, conducted by Lacombe.  What I want to do here is mostly to contrast how I feel about the two concerts, for which I need to refer back to my blog on the NJ Symphony performance as my recollection of the specifics is vague.

Avery Fisher Hall is much bigger than State Theater, so the sounds were naturally quite different.  While State Theater felt more intimate, Avery Fisher’s size somehow conveyed more of the solemnity of the occasion; consequently the warmer sound in the State Theater was an interesting contrast to Avery Fisher.  I am okay with either “arrangement.”

The soloists all did well.  Both Angela Meade and Eric Owens are well-known figures from the opera stage.  Russell Thomas was a stand-in for the scheduled tenor, it turns out we heard him at the NJ Symphony performance.

I enjoyed the concert, even though it was on a solemn subject.  After giving it considerable thought, I decided not to declare a “winner” between the NY Philharmonic and NJ Symphony: they were both enjoyable in their own ways.

The gentleman auditioning for the concertmaster’s position was leading the orchestra again.  I have found out more information about him since: his name is Frank Huang, and he is currently the concert master at Houston Symphony, he was born in Beijing in 1978 and came to the USA when he was seven.

The New YorkTimes review is brief but generally positive, describing the performance as “powerful” but not quite “transcendent.”  The critic had positive things to say about all the soloists, with only some reservation accorded Thomas.

Reid wasn’t feeling very well, so we picked him up from day care at around noon time.  After we were “off duty” we got into New York City early enough to have dinner at Hunan on 72nd Street.  The trip home was a breeze also.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Anthony McGill, clarinet. January 9, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat M5, $52.50).

Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911/12) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 57 (1928) by Nielson (1865-1931).
Selections from Swan Lake, Op. 20 (1875-76) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).

When I got around to buying tickets as part of a 50% off sale by New York Philharmonic, there were not that many seats left.  So offering incentives does seem to draw in additional concert-goers.  The seats were a bit too close to the stage to our liking, but for tonight’s performance they worked quite well.

Tonight’s program was a mixture of knowns and lesser-knowns.  It is interesting how different the pieces sound even though the three composers had lives that overlapped each other.  I could make out Ravel’s piece being French, and Tchaikovsky’s being Russian (well, the popularity of Swan Lake also gives it away.)  This is the first I heard of Nielsen, a Danish composer who was a contemporary of Sibelius; I can’t say Nielsen reminds me of Sibelius though.

I didn’t read the Program Notes until I got to Avery Fisher, and have to say the title of Ravel’s piece didn’t ring any bell at first.  As I read the notes describing all the flowers, I remembered that I blogged about this piece and found a picture of tuberose to go with that write-up.  Alas, even though I remembered the occasion, I didn’t remember what the music sounded like.  Looking through my old blog, my complaint was that I couldn’t correlate the music with the description.  This time I fared better, not so much I could tell what flower was being described, but that I found the music to be quite accessible.  It’s been about 10 years since that encounter – which was also the last time the orchestra performed it – I wonder if it is due to my different level of music appreciation, or I was simply in a different listening mode.  If it is the former, then I have made some progress, although some would argue pitifully little.  One thing I am sure, the Program Notes are different.  I certainly don’t recall reading “… stands as a seminal work in Ravel’s oeuvre, a distillation of his harmonic practices and his distinctive expression,” or this statement attributed to Debussy: “this is the most subtle ear that can ever have existed.”  If this had been in that Playbill, I wouldn’t have gotten it; neither did I get it this evening.

The waltzes were played without pause, and the movements are: Modere (moderate); Asses lent (rather slow); Modere (moderate); Asses anime (rather animated); Presque lent (almost slow); Asses vif (rather lively); Moins vif (less lively); and Epilogue: Lent (Slow.)

I am writing this blog six days after the concert, and beyond what I said at the outset I don’t have much recollection of the Nielsen piece.  I do remember a couple of themes that got repeated quite often, and remarking to myself that Shostakovich did much better with his 4-note theme for the cello concerto.  McGill – like Cobb of the bass section – are “transfers” from the Metropolitan Opera.  He certainly handled the piece with ease, although other than rapid notes and long breaths I don’t know what constitutes virtuoso clarinet playing.  The piece is not short at about 24 minutes, and is played as one movement.

Over the last several years or so Gilbert has led this revival of Nielsen’s music by programming his six symphonies and three concertos at New York Philharmonic concerts, as well as embarking on a recording project including tonight’s performance.  This was the first concert I attended with Nielsen on the program, and I can only say from this experience that I won’t actively avoid his work.  I wonder how good the record sales are for these recordings.  All I can say is the Nielsen CDs all get high ratings at Amazon.

In writing about Wagner’s Meistersinger, I was wondering whether it would be scandalous to excerpt a famous composer’s work; tonight’s selections offer up a good example.  Tchaikovsky may have intended to extract an orchestral suite from Swan Lake but he never got around to doing it.  The movements played tonight comprised both the excerpts done by the publishers Jurgenson and Muzgis, with the exception that Danse napolitaine was replaced by Danse russe.  The selections played tonight were: (i) Scene; (ii) Valse (Waltz); (iii) Danse des Cygnes (Dance of the Young Swans); (iv) Pas d’action (White Swan); (v) Czardas – Danse hongroise (Hungarian Dances); (vi) Danse espagnole (Spanish dance); (vii) Danse russe (Russian Dance); (viii) Mazurka; and (ix) Scene et Finale.

It is a bit interesting why Gilbert has chosen to include this relatively simple-minded composition in the program.  Simple-minded but enjoyable, I must add.  We last saw the ballet in June, 2014, which we liked.  However, with a full orchestra on center stage, the music came to its own.  I was a bit puzzled by a couple of issues.  The most famous scene in the entire ballet is the Coda where Odile does an amazing number of turns (fouettes), and that wasn’t in the program.  The reason why Danse russe was programmed instead became clear when it was played: it was a chance for Staples to showcase her skills as a concertmaster.

New York Philharmonic haven’t announced their new concertmaster yet, and I wonder if Staples is in the running at all.  In any case, she had to play quite a few solos at the last concert also.  Do these constitute an audition, or are they letting her shine before ceding the acting chair to the new leader?  Oh the intrigue.

I like how she did, and Danse Russe calls on considerable virtuoso skills.  I have remarked many times before that I thought her intonation was much better than that of Dicterow’s, that view was confirmed tonight.  Two areas for improvement, first of which was the weak sound, which might just be the acoustics of our seats or the instrument.  The other one is more subjective: she left both Anne and me sitting on the edges of our seats.  She didn’t make any mistakes as far as I could tell, but there was not the level of confidence that Dicterow would garner – but then he had been at it for decades.

The New YorkTimes review has a lot of good things to say about Gilbert and his Nielsen project.

I was in Lancaster, PA the prior evening, and drove back to NJ this morning.  Anne was in Jersey City babysitting Reid as he wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t go to daycare.  I took the train up to meet up with her and drove into the City together.  Traffic was okay both ways; this was the middle of winter, afterall.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Juanjo Mena, conductor; Daniil Trifonov, piano. January 6, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 2 (Seat BB11, $64.50).

Capriccio espangnol, Op. 34 (1887) by Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1 (1890-91; rev. 1917) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathetique (1893) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).

This is a (nearly) all-Russian program.  Two popular pieces by well-known Russian composers, a virtuoso piano concerto played by an up and coming superstar: ingredients for a great concert.

It was only a good concert when measured against my extremely high expectations.  I was thinking about this during the concert and afterwards.  Even for a tough grader like me, New York Philharmonic concerts would (say) earn an average grade of 95.  The great ones would score a 98, the really “bad” ones would get a 92.  I was hoping for a 99, but thought it rated a 96 only.

Capriccio espangnol supposedly is orchestrated “to the highest degree of perfection,” by a composer well-known for his orchestration skills.  This is a familiar piece that contains five self-explanatory movements: (i) Alborada (Morning Song) (Vivo e strepitos); (ii) Variazioni (Variations) (Andante con moto); (iii) Alborada; (iv) Scena e canto Gitano (Scene and Gypsy Song) (Allegretto); and (v) Fandango asturiano (Asturian Fandango.)  I cannot argue with all the accolades in the Playbill about how great this piece is (e.g., the quote that it is a brilliant composition for the orchestra,) but I must say it didn’t come across as such.  The beginning was simply uninspired, and Staples’s solos while crisp and elegant, sounded too soft.  During the faster runs the music sounded muddled.  Things improved considerably as the piece progressed, and it actually ended very well.  The movements were to be played through without pause; however, that was not to be as many thought the piece came to an end at the end of the third (?) movement which ended in a flourish.

Rachmaninoff started on his first piano concerto when he was 17, still a student.  It was revised extensively nearly thirty years later, but kept its Op. 1 designation.  It certainly has not enjoyed the same level of popularity as his second and third concertos.  While I do have a copy of it on my iTunes, I don’t remember ever listening to it.  It is relatively unpopular for good reason, at least as far as I am concerned.  There is no doubt that this is a virtuoso piece, some passages call for such rapid finger and hand movements that they looked like a blur from where I sat.  However, it lacks the melodies and structures of the other concertos that would immediate grip the listener.  There is a rather long cadenza that left me scratching my head: it didn’t look or sound any more difficult than the “regular” concerto.  The Playbill indicates there are some subtleties that require the performer to make choices, and naturally I don’t know what they are.

I still remember being greatly wowed by Trifonov when I first heard him a couple of years ago.  I remember (without looking at my blog entry) that his play was so amazing and confident that while I was mesmerized I was not at all worried that he would get the notes out correctly.  There were no such concerns today either; but sadly the thrill was greatly diminished.  I still admired how easy he made the playing look, but there was not as much story-telling as I thought there should be.  Somehow the lines sounded a bit disjoint, and the balance with the orchestra was problematic at times.

One thing I didn’t notice last time was his playing stance.  It reminded me of Linus of Peanuts’ cartoon fame hunching over the piano.  Okay when one is thin and young; let’s hope this posture won’t give him problems when he is 30 pounds heavier and 30 years older.  One can avoid the former, but there is no fighting with Father Time.

In any case, the audience gave an enthusiastic applause afterwards, and Trifonov played an encore.  I have no idea what the piece is, but would characterize it as Debussy on steroids.

The Tchaikovsky symphony lived up to its billing (Pathetique).  This excerpt from the Playbill hints at the program in the composer’s mind: “The ultimate essence of the thirst for activity.  Must be short.  (Finale DEATH – result of collapse.) Second movement, love; third, disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short.)”  Well, short is subjective; the symphony is about 45 minutes long, after all.  The four movements are (i) Adagio – Allegro non troppo – Andante – Allegro vivo – Andante come prima – Andante mosso; (ii) Allegro con grazia; (iii) Allegro molto vivace; and (iv) Adagio lamentoso – Andante.

This series is the debut for the Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, music director of the BBC Philharmonic.  For the symphony he didn’t need the music, and got good response from the orchestra.  As advertised, the music took the listener through different emotion highs and lows, and ended on a whisper, held there by the still-raised arms of the conductor for perhaps a few seconds too long.  The enthusiastic response from the audience was well-deserved, although I felt more despondent after the BSO performance a few years back, if memory serves.

The New York Times review contains many flowery words for Trifonov's performance, so I guess the reviewer like it.  He also had good words to say about Mena, but shared my sentiment about the Tchaikovsky piece: "without quite letting in the degree of intensity its composer intended."  Indeed the encore by Trifonov is by Debussy (if the same piece was played.)

After the concert, we stopped by Newark Airport to pick up CS and Shirley who returned from a 12-day trip to the West Coast.  Traffic was no problem in both directions.