Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Opera Australia – Gounod’s Faust. February 21, 2015.

Joan Sutherland Theatre at Sydney Opera House, Circle (Seat M20, A$139.)

Story.  See previous blog.  There are some variations in this production: some of the scenes (e.g., Marguerite killing her baby) happens in a vision, Marguerite didn’t go to heaven (not physically anyway), and Faust didn’t follow Satan into hell – he was transformed into an old man again.

Conductor – Guillaume Tourniaire; Mephistopheles – Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Faust – Michael Fabiano, Marguerite – Nicole Car, Wagner – Richard Anderson, Siebel – Anna Dowsley, Valentin – Giorgio Caoduro, Marthe – Dominica Matthews.

As is our usual practice, we try to see one opera during our annual visit to Australia.  The old war horses (Butterfly, e.g.) are being performed, but my preference is for something less popular, and this opera also worked well with our availability during our time in Sydney.  Of course this opera is one of the most performed operas historically, and it was the first opera performed at the Met (yes, that Met), and the Met is sometimes described as the “house that Faust built.” The last quote was from the flyer handed out at the door.  As usual I decided against buying a program (especially since I just got one from SSO for free earlier today,) which incidentally is priced at A$20.

Let me first dispense with the “how was it” question.  At the risk of repeating what I said about another OA performance, this was an excellent show, perhaps the best OA show I have seen over the years.  (The last OA performance I gave this accolade to was La Boheme two years ago.)  No doubt an important factor is the story.  Even though I had forgotten some of the details (and they vary from version to version), the overall story of “selling ones soul for … take your pick …” is compelling.  At the intermission both Anne and I agreed that the plot was unfolding at a nice pace, which made the 3:15 hour go rather quickly.

The singers were uniformly good.  They all look quite young (we were seated at the back of the hall, so I am not completely sure.)  However, I am sure I read somewhere that Michael Fabiano is a 30-year old American sensation – he certainly did very well as Faust today.

The production was on the “in your face” side.  I have made similar remarks that a show with Satan playing a lead role has to be somewhat blasphemous.  It was very much so here with images of Christ and Satan mixed up constantly; at certain points I even felt a bit uncomfortable.  Perhaps that was the idea?  The handout today is more detailed than ones I got in the past (it is printed on both sides!), and talks about how magnificent the set is: giving the audience a Parisian theatre, a recreation of the Church of Saint-Severin and a glittering reconstruction of the Cabaret L’Enfer.  I suppose I would have been impressed if I had been to these specific places …

The drama and the good singing redeemed some of the short-comings in the show.  Rhodes as Satan generally did well, but his voice is weak at the lowest registers.  Nicole Car as Marguerite drew a great deal of sympathy from the audience with her melancholic and wistful renditions.  I did cringe a bit when the violin solo was quite out of tune at one point.  The chorus did a competent job, but there were some jitters at the beginning which diminished as the performance progressed.

There was a rather long ballet scene during Faust’s vision that was quite disturbing.  The ballets would start out traditionally enough but they devolved into chaotic scenes that sometimes bordered on lewdness.  I don’t remember the same level of repulsiveness in the other Fausts I saw.

I told Tim one of the familiar tunes is the Hungarian March and hummed it for him.  Turns out he knew the tune I hummed, but it was actually from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust.  The tune I was thinking of sounds more like the French National Anthem.  In any case, on any given day these two tunes and the triumphal march from Aida get me extremely confused.  Alyson also pointed out the Jewel Song sung by Marguerite was the one in the movie Adventures of Tintin that caused the crystal to shatter.  I had seen that movie but embarrassingly couldn’t remember its use of the tune.

In any case, an annual routine ended up being a very enjoyable evening.

The Sydney Morning Herald review is glowing, with the reviewer climbing all over herself to find better adjectives to describe the performance.  She only had a minor quibble with the orchestra, wishing that they will "find greater focus during the season."

I found out earlier today that the house seats only about 1500 people.  Indeed when we took a ferry ride from Circular Quay it is obvious that the Concert Hall (on the right in this photo) is larger than the Opera Theatre.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra – David Robertson, conductor. February 21, 2015.

Concert Hall at Sydney Opera House, Circle (Seat S7, A$62.)

Jerusalem (after Blake) by Georges Lentz (b. 1965).
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 by Schumann (1810-1856).
Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 97, Rhenish by Schumann.

Anne and I are visiting Australia.  As is our practice, we had bought tickets for an opera quite a while ago – that was going to be Saturday evening.  After having been here for more than a week, we realized that we would be able to attend this concert as well.  When I offered to buy tickets at (about) A$80 each, the box office agent said these $62 ones were just slightly inferior, so we gladly took her advice.  Lest one thinks this lady had a grudge against Sydney Symphony, it was far from being so: she proceeded to tell us the great conductors they have had before Robertson, including Edo de Waart.

It had been a few years since I last visited the Concert Hall.  It still looks quite modern after 50 years or so, and it seats comfortably 2700 people, with lots of elbow and leg room – of course here in Sydney one seldom has to contend with heavy coats.

Lentz is a member of the Sydney Symphony’s violin section who is also “one of Australia’s best-regarded composers on the international scene.”  According to the Program Notes (which is free, by the way), his inspiration for the orchestral piece came from the unspeakable tragedies that occurred recently, including the disappearance of MH370, 9/11, people being beheaded, and the human race’s ignorance towards ecological disaster.  Lentz wants people to heed Blake’s warning in Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion: “Awake! Awake Jerusalem!”  I may or may not have heard these statements in the music, but must say as modern music goes it was okay, even considering it was quite long at over 20 minutes.  As is typical of this genre, there are non-traditional arrangements such as the placement of seven brass instruments in the back of the hall, the use of three piccolos, an electronic track, and a metal sheet.  There were seven cell phones that were supposed to represent the phone calls that never came for those on MH370, but neither Anne nor I could hear the ring.  Also, some credit must be given to the percussionists who managed to quietly stow the metal sheet after it came off the stand.

This is Robertson’s second year as the music director and chief conductor of SSO, and he seems to have settled in well.  Perhaps it was his programming expertise, or perhaps anything would sound “romantic” after the Lentz piece, I really enjoyed Schumann’s Fourth Symphony.  This work was first composed during Schumann’s first year of marriage to Clara and reflected the happiness he felt.  It was originally published as the second symphony but was later revised substantially and retitled the fourth. While I don’t remember having heard it many times before, the movements all sounded familiar.  As with some of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, many of the themes were reused over and over; they were all very nice tunes, so I welcomed them.  The movements are listed as follows in the Program: Ziemlich langsam [Rather slow] – Lebhaft [Lively] – Romanze [Ziemlich langsam] – Scherzo [Lebhaft] – Langsam [Slow] – Lebhaft.  Indeed the movements were played without break, but there were still clear demarcations between them.

There was a child sitting behind us that complained quite a bit during the performance.  Given where he was sitting, I am sure he disturbed the entire audience and the orchestra.  But their seats were such that for them to leave during the performance would have been even more distracting.  There are legitimate reasons why there should be some age restrictions.  The parents were considerate enough that they left after the conclusion of the first half of the program.

In comparison I wasn’t at all familiar with the third symphony, written during Schumann’s stay in Dusseldorf.  There was certainly much less repetition of the themes (perhaps I failed to catch them?)  The symphony is somewhat unusual in that it has five movements (i) Lebhaft [Lively], (ii) Scherzo [Sehr massig] [Very moderately], (iii) Nicht schnell [Not fast], (iv) Feierlich [Ceremonially], and (v) Lebhaft.  Even though the Program contains a rather detailed description of the movements, I must say I had trouble following it, and that includes this description of the third movement which “according to Jonathan Kramer is too songlike and direct to be a real slow movement, and therefore establishing the need for an additional movement, a true adagio.” Wow!

Here is a review from the Sydney Morning Herald on a concert where the 2 symphonies were paired with a violin concerto.  Frankly I am not sure if the reviewer liked the performance.  The reviewer concedes the program was brilliantly conceived but may be too advanced for the average listener, and she also remarked how Robertson leapt of the podium at some point.  Well, they have snobs (not necessarily a bad word) in Australia, and she should know by now Robertson is one of those "energetic" conductors - he jumps around even if the music is not Schumann.

I posted this event on my Facebook page, including the words “the sound of the hall is too clean,” which Chung Shu wanted me to explain.  By most measures the acoustics in the hall is excellent, Carnegie Hall-excellent, one might say.  However, the sound has such an engineered quality to it that not much “rawness” comes through.

Attendance was quite respectable with the hall being 80 to 90% full in my estimation.

The SSO is a world-class orchestra.  Being so far from other major cities, they probably will remain only a regional powerhouse, which is a real pity.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

New York Philharmonic – David Zinman, conductor; Lisa Batiashvili, violin. February 6, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat S108, $64.50.)

Iscariot (1989) by Christopher Rouse (b. 1949).
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 (1939-40/1948) by Barber (1910-81).
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-08) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

Due to various unforeseen circumstances, including an unplanned, last-minute trip to Hong Kong, it had been a while (relatively speaking, it’s not quite three weeks) that we went to a concert.  Having just gotten back to NJ after essentially a two-week absence, my mind hadn’t quite swung back to “routine” yet.  Thus I never got to read up on the program notes until I got the Playbill at about 7:30 pm.  There was not a lot that I could gleam from the notes that would help in my understanding of the music, although the annotator did put the compositions somewhat in context, which at least got my curiosity piqued.

Rouse is finishing up his last (of three) years as composer-in-residence at New York Philharmonic.  While his music is generally accessible on the first hearing, it is seldom – if ever – exciting.  That it began on a Mahler Sixth-like quintuple-f certainly was unusual, and the loud beat made by the bass drum (and hammer, per Playbill, although I couldn’t tell) certainly caught everyone’s attention.  It is not always that I can correlate the music with the sketch in the Playbill, but for this piece it was actually quite easy – from the Parsifal-like strings and the clock-chiming harmonics.  I do not know much about some of the other musical references though, and these include “Es ist genug” in a Lutheran chorale used by Bach, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety by Feldman, and Unanswered Question by Ives.  The most puzzling, however, are the references to the terms “strophe” and “antistrophe.”  Now I know the terms refers to sections of an ancient Greek chorale ode, but neither Anne nor I could figure out what the terms meant during the concert.  This recalls a similar situation on Thursday: we went to MoMA to look at Matisse’s cutout exhibit, and the term “maquette” was used all over the exhibition, and we had no idea what it meant.  At least we could google it in real time and found out it meant a scale model.

I could make some remarks about the music.  While pleasant and interesting enough (these are relative terms, of course,) I couldn’t quite understand how the different strophes and antistrophes are linked together to describe Judas Iscariot.  The images that the name evokes are most likely betrayal, death, greed, and disappointment.  Many of these can be associated with the music, but taken as a whole I suspect Iscariot isn’t the title that the ordinary listener will come up with.  The music is by-and-large tonal, but there are sections that the bowing in the strings is not the same for some members of the sections.  That is a technique used by Karel Husa in some of his works, and Rouse studied under Husa for a while.

We had heard the Barber violin concerto once before (at least,) and I remember the soloist as Gil Shaham.  The Playbill does say it was last performed by Shaham in December, 2012; we were out of town during that time.  A search of this blog clears it up: Shaham also played this in 2010.  (Of course that begs the question of why.)  I will go back and look at my entry later, but after four or five years I don’t have much recollection of it; if I had to guess I would say it was not particularly memorable.  Barber provided a commentary, quoted in the Playbill, that was very helpful in following the performance.

Today’s performance by Batiashvili (also artist-in-residence at the Philharmonic, as it happens) was quite enjoyable.  From what I could tell, the first two movements (Allegro and Andante) are not particularly challenging technically, but the last movement (Presto in moto perpetuo) calls for such speed that you root for the soloist not to slip.  Other than some minor intonation problems, she didn’t have trouble at all.  Per Playbill she plays the 1739 “del Gesu” Guarnerius which has a rich and deep sound on the G-string.  I was impressed with how well it sounded overall against a large orchestra (although described as moderate-sized by Barber.)

[After having finished the above I went back to my blog entry on the 2/27/2010 concert.  My impression was quite different: among other things, the Program Notes had more interesting things to say about the “controversy” of the work, and that Shaham’s Stradivarius was sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra.]

The name Rachmaninoff usually makes one think of romanticism, nice melodies, complex harmony, and virtuosity.  For some reason the second symphony doesn’t quite elicit those comments from me.  Not that it was boring, it was just not as exciting as some of the composer’s other works.  This is a rather long symphony at 65 minutes, and the four movements are (i) Largo – Allegro moderato; (ii) Allegro molto – Meno mosso – Tempo I; (iii) Adagio; and (iv) Allegro vivace – Adagio – Tempo precedente.  (That begs the question, what is the difference between Tempo I and Tempo precedente?)  Of course the Adagio movement is quite popular.  Anticipating it is like looking forward to Nessun Dorma by sitting through the entire Turandot; the Adagio is at least 15 minutes or so long.

The New YorkTimes reviewer is very positive on all aspects of the concert.  While I didn’t find Zinman’s interpretation particularly compelling, she used words such as exuberant, deft, and passion in her description of his conducting.

During intermission I notice an email from New York Philharmonic announcing the resignation of Alan Gilbert after the 2016/17 season.  That caught me by surprise.  I looked up the on-line news items: most repeat the same basic facts, with Gilbert saying if he doesn’t leave after the 16/17 season, then he will probably have to stay through 2021 to provide continuity through the Avery Fisher Hall renovation.  The only article that raised the possibility of palace intrigue is the one in Washington Post; the writer has a rather low view of Gilbert.

I have been going to New York Philharmonic concerts for many years, these times have been the most tumultuous.  I do hope the organization emerges stronger because of them.

It has been very cold this season, so traffic was lighter than usual.  Our ride into town was uneventful until we got to the West Side.  Many local streets had at least one lane blocked because of snow, which made traffic very slow.  We ended waiting at one of the “free after 7 pm” spots on Amsterdam.  Our ride back was quick.