Monday, March 30, 2015

Joshua Bell in Recital. Sam Haywood, piano. March 28, 2015.

State Theatre, New Brunswick, NJ.  Balcony (Seat P107, $19.)

Sonata No. 4 in A minor, Op. 23 by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Sonata No. 1 in F Major, Op. 8 by Grieg (1843-1907).
Sonata No.1 in G Major, Op. 78 by Brahms (1833-1897).
Rhapsody No. 1, Sz. 87 by Bartok (1881-1945).

We bought these tickets via Amazon Local, at $19 each, nothing could possibly go wrong.  And nothing did.  Actually this turned out to be a very enjoyable event, even though our seats, at about 110 feet away per the theatre’s seating chart, were a bit far from the stage.  When we picked up at “will call,” we were actually offered upgraded seats for $15 each but decided against it.  I would gladly have paid $34 per seat if they had been available at the time of purchase; strange, this human psychology.  In any case, I am glad the hall was reasonably full.

By the large Bell produced a very pleasant sound, and his cooperation with the pianist was excellent.  As a violin student, I played several of Beethoven’s violin sonatas and worked hard at the Brahms sonata for an examination.  My teacher decided to skip over Beethoven’s fourth, so it was a fresh piece.  Per the Program Notes, Grieg’s sonata is rarely performed nowadays.  I really enjoyed it, and wonder what moved artists away from the piece – it sounded elegant, reasonably complex, and pleasant.

The Bartok Rhapsody was the most technically challenging piece.  The two movements lassu (slow) and friss (fast) are based on Hungarian folk tunes.  However, here Bell and Haywood may have met their match technically; I was so worried about their making the notes that I didn’t catch much of the melodies the piece is based on.  This reminds me of the Repin recital where he had trouble with Ravel’s Tzigane.

During my final year of high school I took a certificate exam offered by the Trinity School of Music.  I spent countless hours on the Brahms sonata which was on the syllabus, and (glad to report) passed.  Of course I listened to multiple recordings of the piece, and eventually formed an opinion on how it should be performed.  Bell didn’t quite do the piece the way I did, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  (Disclaimer: that was more than 40 years ago, and I can’t play it the way I did.)

A violin sonata is supposed to be a co-operation between the violin and the piano.  My experience with Beethoven and Brahms is indeed they are.  Not today, not most of the time anyway.  Bell just dominated the show, which somewhat detracted from the musical aspects of the program.  I didn’t mind; I don’t think much of the audience did either.  This audience also couldn’t help itself from applauding after each movement.

For completeness, here are the movements of the different sonatas: Beethoven – Presto; Andante scherzoso, piu Allegretto; Allegro molto; Grieg – Allegro con brio; Allegretto quasi andantino; Allegro molto vivace; Brahms – Vivace, ma non troppo; Adagio, Allegro molto moderato.

For encore the pair played Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor, and a Brahms Hungarian Dance.

We spent most of the day with Ellie and family in Philadelphia, leaving for New Brunswick after an early dinner.  The free off-street parking was an added bonus.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Metropolitan Opera – Massenet’s Manon. March 25, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat B121, $104.50.)

Story.  See previous blog.  I would add Manon was only 16 when she was introduced in this opera.

Conductor – Emmanuel Villaume; Guillot de Mortontaine – Christopher Mortagne, de Bretigny – Dwayne Croft, Lescaut – Michael Todd Simpson, Manon Lescaut – Diana Damrau, Chevalier des Grieux – Vittorio Grigolo,  Count des Grieux – Nicolas Teste.

We last saw this opera in 2010, in Australia, and once at the Met before my blogging days, so it wasn’t in my original season subscription. With our travels – some last minute, unscheduled – we ended up getting tickets for this show.  I was quite okay to do it again since Damrau and Grigolo are playing the lead.

Let me first say this was an enjoyable performance.  We have heard Damrau several times before and admired her singing.  She seemed to be holding back a bit during the beginning acts, but her singing improved as the performance went on.  In the Playbill she talks about the need to conserve her voice for the more challenging arias in the later acts.  Indeed she managed to sound fresh for the more demanding passages towards the end.  My only prior exposure to Grigolo was a Youtube video of him in a Salzburg Festival performance of La Traviata, opposite Anna Netrebko.  I was quite impressed with how well he did, although I attributed some of that to the engineering of the video.  He was equally impressive tonight, and he didn’t seem to need to hold anything back at the beginning.  Of course I cannot tell how difficult the two parts are relative to each other.  Others did quite well also – actually I don’t remember any weakness in the singing.  The trio of Mireille Asselin, Cecelia Hall and Maya Lahyani (as Posette, Javotte, and Rosette) was particularly entertaining, playing the role of gold-diggers very well.

The sets were perhaps a bit too clever.  For both the first and last acts small houses were “glued” onto other parts of the sets, probably in an attempt to portray the vastness of the town and the length of the road.  The end result was just strange.  The sets for the other three acts (Act 3 has two scenes) were more traditional.  The sets are quite large as they have to accommodate large choruses.  I find the Chapel St. Sulpice particularly impressive, with the many chairs that were set up in the sanctuary.

The chorus had quite a bit of singing to do and put in its usual competent renditions.  The orchestra played well, adding a lot to the mood as events took place on stage.  I wish I had caught more of the musical moments described in the Playbill; I suspect that would take multiple, careful meetings.

The story is still a bit sketchy in that lots of things “happen offstage.”  Having read the Program Notes (on the web) ahead of time, it made more sense today.  Still it was a bit difficult to sympathize with Manon even though she dies at the end.  Nonetheless, the death scene was better than I remembered it.  I called that scene “drawn out” in my writeup on the Opera Australia performance, I definitely didn’t feel that way tonight.

I found this performance more enjoyable than the Opera Australia one – and I enjoyed that one also.  Many factors contributed to this evaluation, and I am sure the singing is at the top of the list.  I do wish there are more singable tunes, though.

The New YorkTimes review characterizes this revival as “sensational.”  The reviewer attributes what I call Damrau's improvement during the show to the maturing of the character.  In any case, this is one of the more easily enjoyable operas this season, and it is both troubling and puzzling the number of empty seats today.  An interesting fact, Nicolas Teste (playing Count des Grieux) is Damrau's husband.

We stopped by Jersey City to spend some time with Reid before we headed to the city.  Dinner was purchased at Anne’s “favorite” street vendor.  On our way back, our GPS routed us through Holland Tunnel.  It is good we took the route as there was a detour at the Lincoln Tunnel helix.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Jacques Lacombe, conductor; Mary Fahl, vocalist, Serhiy Salov, piano. March 21, 2015.

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ.  Orchestra (Seat H115, $52.)

O for a Muse of Fire (2014) by Darryl Kubian (b. 1966).
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, “Pathetique,” Op. 74 (1893) by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

Evidently NJSO has this “multi-year Winter Festival” and other initiatives that include composition commissions.  In this case it was “an overture-length piece with a connection to Shakespeare.”  Kubian, an NJSO violinist, decided on Henry V as the basis of his work.  All I know about Henry V is what Kubian said at the introduction of the concert: King Henry’s power over life and death; French and English forces fighting at the Battle of Agincourt; and is casualties of war a worthy sacrifice for unity.  The way he went about structuring the piece was to have the vocalist (who incidentally used a microphone) present themes drawn from the play. and the orchestra expanding on them.  With his “inside tips” (such as themes in the first and second violins represent the English and French forces) the piece is relatively easy to understand.  While I didn’t quite get the drama I would expect of a Shakespeare play, it was nonetheless an enjoyable 12 minutes of music.  The music calls for a waterphone that I definitely didn’t know about, it was helpful that Kubian asked the percussionist to show it to the audience at the beginning.

We heard this Rachmaninoff piece on Halloween last year in Dublin, and from that encounter we knew all about the inverted theme and the use of Dies Irae in the variations.  That knowledge didn’t diminish our appreciation of the composer, or the virtuosity of the performer.  This was our first encounter with the Ukraine-born Salov, and the bio included in the program probably would elicit a shrug from most people.  But did he put in an enjoyable performance.  Being in Row H, and on the center left of the auditorium, we had a clear view of the way he attacked the piano.  It was amazing to watch.  Come to think of it, this was very similar to how I feel about the Dublin experience.  One exception was the “fear” associated with Dies Irae was missing in tonight’s performance.

Our proximity to the stage also made the Pathetique Symphony quite interesting, with everything amplified to up close and personal.  The downside is we had no view of the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections.  The upside is that the violas - whose sound I always have trouble picking out in the orchestra – sounded great.  Even though I have heard this several times in the past few years (by the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and the Pro Arte Orchestra of Hong Kong), I continue to find this Symphony enjoyable.  I must say it wasn’t as sad as it could be.

In looking over the NJSO website, I found out this isn’t Lacombe’s last season – his last season would be the next.  A little sigh of relief here.

This article at provides more information on the Kubian piece: the battle was the Battle of Agincourt, the English were outnumbered yet they won (with the long bow.) I found this review of the overall concert.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Inon Barnatan, piano. March 20, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat S103, $64.50.)

Nyx (2010) by Salonen (b. 1958).
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Jeux: Poeme danse (1912-13) by Debussy (1862-1918).
Der Rosenkavalier Suite (1909-10/1944) by R. Strauss (1864-1949).

My prior encounters with Salonen’s music have been mixed, so I was not expecting much from the music that began today’s program.  The Playbill contains Salonen’s description of this work, Nyx being a shadowy figure in Greek mythology which traces to Nyx the creation of Day (or heaven and earth in another version).  Salonen decided to name the composition after this elusive figure, while making the claim that he is not trying to describe her.  He also mentions a deviation of his recent technique of continuous variation of material in the composition of this work.  In any case, many of his remarks are too profound for me, and – I suspect – for much of the audience.

So I fully suspected I would be shrugging my shoulders (figuratively) during the performance.  Instead I found this an easy piece of music to enjoy, as the orchestra is called upon to produce its full range of timbres, frequencies, and loudness.  While I cannot dissect the piece into different parts, I found it quite coherent as the music went from soft to loud, slow to fast, and low to high.

Salonen came on stage afterwards to take a bow.

I recall having heard Ravel’s G major piano at least twice, and came away with different impressions.  This is definitely a difficult piece – Ravel wanted to premiere it but couldn’t, after all – and Barnatan managed to pound out all the notes, leaving no doubt that he could handle the virtuoso piece.  However, musically it wasn’t satisfying, and the second movement simply dragged on aimlessly.  Going back to some of my earlier blog entries, this could be an enjoyable concerto.

A couple of days ago we heard Gershwin’s piano concerto.  Ravel composed this after his visit to America and Gershwin, so it is natural to assume there is some Gershwin influence in this piece.  Indeed occasionally one hears a glissando that evokes images of a jazz player.

Interestingly, a concert I went to last year had both the Gershwin and the Ravel piano concertos on the program.  Actually, the pianist was also the conductor for that concert as well (Jeffrey Kahane.)

We heard Jeux a few years ago, conducted by Lorin Maazel in 2011.  To recap, this was intended as ballet music with a rather thin story line.  I described the sound by the full orchestra then as “great.”  Admittedly I don’t remember much about that 2011 performance; however, while today’s performance is okay, it is definitely not in the “great” camp.

Similarly, the Rosenkavalier Suite didn’t quite rise to the “great” level either.  The version played today was by an unidentified arranger in 1944, although Artur Rodzinski is believed by many to be the editor.  For this concert series Gilbert further replaced the last section of the arrangement with the last pages of the opera, subsuming the vocal parts into the orchestra’s lines.

So this was a disappointing performance, and it showed so much promise on paper.

In his short description of the program, Gilbert talks about exploring texture and color possibilities.  With the exception of Salonen’s, the works were composed within about two decades of one another, yet they have the possibility of providing a wider range of textures than the LSO program we saw two days ago.  Gilbert decided to forgo the use of a baton today, I wonder if that had anything to do with the sloppiness of the sound.  Anne remarked that he looked like a traffic cop.

The 36-year old Israeli pianist is the Artist-in-Association of the New York Philharmonic, so I imagine he comes with great credentials.  I had mentioned earlier how I found his performance flat, let’s hope it gets better as he spends more time working with the orchestra.

I don’t know if Sheryl Staples will be named the concertmaster to replace Dicterow.  If she did, I would be okay with it.  Actually in some way I am rooting for her, something about bridesmaids eventually becoming brides.  There were quite a few solo lines, but today she came across uncharacteristically weak playing them.

In an earlier blog I was hoping that the changes affecting the orchestra won’t diminish its quality.  Let’s hope today was just an aberration.

The New YorkTimes review actually went along pretty much the same lines I did, although I will concede the reviewer has better prose.  The one exception would be his calling Barnatan’s performance “judicious,” and the second movement “striking simplicity.”

This was an 11 am concert, but our drive into and out of the city was quite straightforward.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

London Symphony Orchestra – Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Yuja Wang, piano. March 18, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Right Orchestra (Seat Z16, $65.)

Four Sea Interludes, from Peter Grimes (1945) by Britten (1913-76).
Concerto in F (1925) by Gershwin (1898-1937).
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1901-02) by Sibelius (1865-1957).

As the playbill says, the three pieces for this concert were written within a span of forty years, and it would be interesting to hear the contrasts among them.  Of course one could have put Brahms and Bruckner in the same program and then made equally profound remarks about how their styles differ.  Having said that, I must say this is a delightful program, yet it didn’t quite stimulate to the extent I thought it would.

Soon after Peter Grimes was premiered, Britten excerpted and edited four of the interludes into an orchestral work.  The titles of the interludes are Dawn (Lento e tranquillo), Sunday Morning (Allegro spiritoso), Moonlight (Andante comodo e rubato), and Storm (Presto con fuoco).  The Playbill has a description of the segments that allows the listener to closely follow the music.  There is some novel instrumentation, such as the use of horns to imitate church bells.  On a good day I would probably find this enjoyable, today – perhaps in my jet-lagged state - I just found the whole thing a bit too predictable and trite.  So you can make music sound like the sea’s different conditions, what’s the big deal.   So could Debussy, Wagner, and many others.  Yes, and we heard The Oceanides by Sibelius in our last concert.  I guess the harshest remark would be this: having heard this piece didn’t really make me want to go see the opera.  In its defense, it didn’t make me want to see it less either.

If you asked me what I know about Gershwin, I would say Rhapsody in Blue, American in Paris, and parts of Porgy & Bess.  In the Playbill Gershwin is quoted as trying to show his critics “there was plenty more where that came from.”  After listening to this, both Anne and I agreed the concerto sounded like a combination of all three, only less exciting.  One note was repeated so often that it seemed to dominate much of the music.  It makes me wonder, however, what distinguishes classical music from jazz.  To me at its best jazz makes you want to swing, it radiates happiness and sadness, and it feels whimsical.  Somehow the “traditional” classical music means more to me, although I can’t quite put my finger on it.  Is it the structure, the harmony, or is it something else?

Yuja Wang is one of these young musicians that burst onto the music scene, seemingly from nowhere.  She is now in her early twenties, and today was the first time that we got to see her.  Our seats were on the right side of the auditorium, so we could see only her face and part of her right arm.  There were times I saw rapid arm movements but could barely hear the piano, I wonder if that was the acoustics of our seats, or it was just lousy balance with the orchestra.  She seemed to enjoy herself, and it looked as if she was singing or murmuring along as she played.  The 30- or so minute piece consists of three movements: Allegro, Adagio – Andante con moto, and Allegro agitato.

The thunderous applause really puzzled me.  She played an encore that I had not heard before, but it was in the same “genre” as Gershwin, if there is such a thing.  The one remarkable thing was she used an iPad (or an Android tablet) as her music score, turning the pages by quickly tapping on the device.

There is much discussion in the Playbill about Sibelius’s second symphony’s patriotic element, a defiant gesture towards the Russian occupation.  Frankly I didn’t hear much of it; actually I found it rather sunny.  Described as “significantly tauter” than the first, I still found its 45 minute length a bit long.  However, it is on the whole quite enjoyable.  The part where a theme took a while to be teased out in its entirety still held me in anticipation.  The movements are: Allegretto; Tempo Andante, ma rubato; Vivacissimo; and Finale: Allegro moderato, with the last two movements played without pause.

I vaguely recall listening to Thomas conducting this orchestra (or was it the San Francisco Symphony?) at the Barbican Center years ago, before my concert-blogging days.  However, I must say I don’t have much recollection of that event.  If you ask me five years down the road, I suspect all I remember would be this is the first time I heard Yuja Wang, and it was a concert that didn’t quite live up to (what I considered) its promise.  Also, the exaggerated movements of the Symphony's leader made me wonder if he thought he was the soloist.

I am finishing this writeup on March 21, after attending a New York Philharmonic concert last night.  I will have more to say about the latter concert, but suffice it to say the programming there was much more successful in showing the style contrasts of the different composers on the program.

The New YorkTimes review characterized Wang’s playing as brilliant; the Sibelius symphony as epic; and that the encore, titled “You Come Here Often,” was written for Yuja Wang by Michael Tilson Thomas.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Sakari Oramo, conductor; Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin. February 26, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier (Seat CC15, $64.50).

Aallottaret (The Oceanides), Tone Poem for Orchestra, Op. 73 (1914) by Sibelius (1865-1957).
Concerto for Violin in D minor, Op. 47 (1902-04; rev. 1905) by Sibelius.
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877) by Brahms (1833-97).

We came back from an international trip late Tuesday, so I was worried about being awake for this program.  On top of that, babysitting duties and Anne’s meeting in Flushing meant a relatively early start for us.  I am glad to report that we had no problems.

Aallottaret is the name of the water nymphs of Greek antiquity, and Sibelius wrote it as a commission for a music festival in Norfolk, CT.  He was also invited to conduct its premiere, and the composer retitled the tone poem from “Rondo of the Waves” to the current one after crossing the Atlantic on Kaiser Wilhem II (perhaps a rough ride?).  Except for the conjecture, all this is from the Playbill, which also cites opinion that this work calls to mind the other famous seascape piece (La Mer) and was perhaps Sibelius’s venture into impressionism.

To me, the line between impressionist paintings and those of other genres is quite blurry.  I haven’t studied what impressionist music really is, but suspect there is a similar spectrum of uncertainty involved.  One thing I know, impressionist paintings appeal more readily to me than impressionist music, and I say this as someone who goes to concerts much more than art galleries.

While the music is definitely Sibelius, the adjective that came to my mind was “clich├ęd.”  There may be a story line associated with the music (as those tone poems that I know have), I couldn’t make it out and wasn’t creative enough to make one up, so all I got were sounds of waves, crescendos and decrescendos (building up and calming of the waves, no doubt.)  I found both La Mer and the overture to Flying Dutchman more compelling as a description of the oceans.  The orchestra sounded quite precise, though.

Zimmermann was a recent artist-in-residence at the Philharmonic, and I heard him a couple of times.  I was also looking forward to hearing Sibelius’s concerto, a piece that is both technically and musically challenging piece.

Technically Zimmermann did well, one measure of that was at no time I was worried that he would miss a passage.  However, I did cringe – a lot – at his intonation problems, especially during the first movement.  Anne had a similar complaint.

Lately it has been out of fashion to talk about how this violin concerto is a reflection of Sibelius’s inadequacies as a violinist (although he was pretty good,) which is okay.  However, that doesn’t mean all the emotion should be taken from the composition.  Zimmermann started the solo with a dark tone, underlined by little use of the vibrato, which really captured my attention; it is too bad the piece eventually sounded like an etude.

In any case, the audience went wild afterwards.  Zimmermann played Bach’s Partita (MWV 1006, E major) as an encore.  It was really well-played, with the different lines coming through clearly.

Of all the Brahms symphonies, I have a special affinity for his second: I was with the Cornell Symphony when we played it at one of the semi-annual concerts.  That was the 70s.  Forty years later it still sounded as lovely as it did then.

This was the first time we saw Oramo, chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Orchestra.  While he certainly got a good sound from the orchestra, especially for the Sibelius violin concerto, I am not sure how good a story-teller he is.

It’s been a while since we last sat in Tier 1, the acoustics at the corner was surprisingly good.  While I was scanning the orchestra with my binoculars, I noticed in the Violin II section someone who (used to?) plays for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.  Audition?

The New YorkTimes review contains some interesting information on the “new” violin Zimmermann used for this concert (a Guarnerius instead of a Strad) and explained how he managed to produce a similar sound.  The reviewer also talked about the beginning of the concerto.  He however liked the entire performance.  I did like the sound of the instrument, though.

Anne went to Flushing earlier in the day to have a meeting, and I drove up by myself to Lincoln Center.  Traffic wasn’t a problem at all.