Saturday, May 16, 2015

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Peter Bay, conductor; Andre Watts, piano. May 15, 2015.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC.  Tier 1 (Seat D17, $49.)

Overture to Cosi fan tutte, K. 588 by Mozart (1756-1791).
Concerto No. 4 in G Major for Piano, Op. 58 by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Four Norwegian Moods by Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Concerto in A minor for Piano by Grieg (1843-1907).

Today’s program is Andre Watts, pure and simple.  Any one of the two concertos would have been sufficient for a respectable program, but today we have two.

Beethoven wrote his fourth concerto knowing his hearing was quickly deteriorating, and he was both the soloist and the conductor at its premiere.  In typical Beethoven fashion, this is a piece of contrasts, from one passage to the other, and between the soloist and the orchestra.  Delight is the word to describe the performance.

Grieg wrote the piano concerto when he was 25, and it has been a popular piece in the piano repertoire since it was premiered in 1869.  There is this story in the Program Notes about how Grieg met Liszt and the latter sight-read the piece flawlessly.  No doubt Liszt was a great pianist, but it is still amazing for him to do so, considering how difficult the piece sounded.  Incidentally, the Notes has a good description of the structure of both pieces, which added a lot to my appreciation of the music.

The Beethoven Concerto has three movements: Allegro moderato, Andante con moto, and Rondo: Vivace.  The Grieg Concerto’s three movements were not listed in the program.  They are (i) Allegro molto moderato; (ii) Adagio; (iii) Allegro moderato molto e marcato – Quasi presto – Andante maestoso.

The second movement of Grieg calls for a lot of horn, and the horn came through nicely.  The player was asked to take a well-deserved bow.

At about 70 – he was born in 1946 – Watts still could pound them out nicely.  I have only seen him in concert a few times, and keep wondering how exciting it must have been to hear him during his more youthful days.  He sometimes plays in a posture that reminds me of Linus (as did Trifonov), and doesn’t need exaggerated body movements or staring into the distance to get the mood across.

The audience broke into an enthusiastic and sustained applause and ovation at the conclusion of the concert.

The Mozart overture was an easy-listening piece of music that served as a great lead in to the concert.  Crisp and light, the way I like it.

The Four Norwegian Moods is a short piece, described as “humble” in the Program Notes.  It was intended for a film, but instead of making changes requested by the studio, Stravinsky withdrew the composition.  It resurfaced the following year in its current form.  The music is quite easy to grasp for the first time listener, especially when guided by the Notes.  Stravinsky insisted that the music is not an “impression” or a “state of mind,” and shouldn’t be assumed to have any “ethnological authenticity.”  Be that as it may, I certainly could hear a little folk (perhaps even Norwegian folk) in the four movements: Intrada, Song, Wedding Dance, and Cortege.

The piece was well enough received when premiered at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre by the Boston Symphony. However, when introduced in Paris in 1945 it was met with boo’s led by a young Pierre Boulez.  When the Rite of Spring was premiered (1913) it was considered a novelty, here the students were complaining about this neoclassical work as banal and insipid.  Be that as it may, I suspect nowadays the neoclassical Stravinsky gets heard a lot more than Boulez.

This was our first encounter with Peter Bay.  He looked quite young and was energetic.  (He can't be that young as he won a Young Conductor award in 1980.)   He has been the music director of the Austin Symphony for 16 years.  I thought he did a great job with the orchestra, and led a great dialog with Watts in the concertos.

Our seats in the first tier were good, a bargain at $49 (bought from Amazon Local.)  However, the acoustics isn’t the best.  We could hear the different parts, but they all sounded distant.

On our way to NJPAC we took the Turnpike to Exit 15E and then followed Raymond Blvd.  It was an easy drive.  We tried to do the reverse, but didn’t realize we couldn’t get to Exit 15E because of the Pulaski Skyway project.  Luckily the detours to get back were not too bad.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano, Russell Braun, baritone. May 8, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Tier 1 (Seat CC7, $64.50).

Symphony in B minor, D.759, Unfinished (1822) by Schubert (1797-1828).
Senza sangue (2014; rev. 2015) by Peter Eotvos (b. 1944).

We had tickets for the performance on Saturday.  Since we were planning to be in Jersey City Friday afternoon, we wanted to exchange the tickets to a day earlier.  Turns out the New York Philharmonic website was down for several days (first time in memory this ever happened), so I had to call their customer service to make the request. It worked out okay at the end.

Perhaps a harbinger of summer traffic, it took us close to 1 ½ hours to go from Jersey City to Lincoln Center.  As I waited for a parking space, Anne went ahead to order food from Europan.  Alas, it is closed for a 2-month renovation!  Let’s hope it will reopen as advertised.  In its stead we had street-vendor food.

Despite all that, it was still a lovely afternoon for a concert.  In the Playbill Gilbert talked extensively about the Senza sangue piece.  It had its world premiere in Cologne last week during the New York Philharmonic European tour, and tonight was the US premiere.  The work was a result of Henri Dutilleux’s decision to share the Marie-Josee Kravis Price for New Music with several younger composers.  The work is based on the novella of the same title (meaning “Without Blood”) written in Italian by Alessandro Baricco that was published in 2002.  The setting is unknown; the story is simple.  During a civil war three men kill the family of a young girl.  One of the men, Pedro Cantos, discovers a young girl hiding out but decides to spare her life.  The girl, Nina, spends many years tracking and killing the men responsible for the murders.  After 52 years she comes face to face with Cantos, and the opera describes the encounter between the two.  The surprise ending is the two fall in love at the end and head towards a hotel together.

As a tribute to Henri Dutilleux, who died in 2013, the opera begins with two calm notes B, D (which are spelling H, D in Hungarian and German.)  The Program Notes contains quite a bit of background and description on the composer and the music, and I will not repeat them here. The composer does mention what he aims for here are sharp contrasts, and shades of black, grey, and white.  I may understand what he meant if I had heard his previous 9 operas (where he strove for a “colorful palette of sound,”) but I seriously doubt that.

The opera actually was quite enjoyable, and at times moving, as the two exchange what happened over 50 years ago.  The ending was a bit abrupt and absurd, an opinion shared by many others, if what I overheard what people were saying after the concert was any indication.

Our seats in the first tier gave us good acoustics for the orchestra, but the voices didn’t come through.  I have always maintained a full orchestra on the same stage as singers don’t work as well when the orchestra is in a pit.  The libretto (English translation) was projected onto the overhang above the stage, which helped tremendously in my ability to follow the story.

Eotvos came on stage at curtain call.  “Younger” doesn’t mean young; he was born in 1944.

On the top of the program was Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.  It is delightful as usual.  I learned a few more things about the work.  For instance, it wasn’t “unfinished” because Schubert died in the midst of composing it; he put it away six years before his death: a plausible explanation is he found out he had syphilis that year, and the disease was fatal at that time.

This article in The Guardian talks about the program and describes Von Otter’s take on the music.  The New York Times has an extensive article on Eotvos and Senza Sangue.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Xian Zhang, conductor; Eric Wyrick, violin; Jonathan Spitz, cello. May 2, 2015.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC, Newark.  Orchestra Tier G (Seat B106, $37.)

Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Cello, Op. 102 (1887) by Brahms (1833-1897).
Serenade for Winds in E-flat Major, Op. 7 (1881) by R. Strauss (1864-1949).
Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543 (1788) by Mozart (1756-1791).

The one time we saw Zhang conduct was in November 2007, during her tenure as New York Philharmonic’s associate conductor.  She left New York Philharmonic around the time Alan Gilbert took over from Lorin Maazel (perhaps the two events are related,) and I have not kept up with her career since.  Per the Program Notes, she has been the music director of Orchestra Sinfonica di Milan Giuseppe Verdi since 2009.  She is billed as an NJSO “favorite” in the publicity literature of the organization.

In any case, I remember I liked that 2007 concert, so that must have been one of the reasons I bought tonight’s tickets.  That the tickets were offered at 50% discount also helped.  Indeed we got very good seats for the price we paid.

I have some, but not a lot of, familiarity with the Brahms double concerto.  Wyrick and Spitz are the concertmaster and principal cello of NJSO respectively, and it is good that they got a chance to be the headline soloists (co-soloists?).  The two gentlemen gave a competent performance.  Balance with each other and the orchestra was good; the sound was good; intonation was near perfect; the technically challenging passages were handled well; and the orchestra played with precision, coming into the foreground and receding into a support role deftly.  What the performance lacked was the level of excitement Brahms usually generates (I am thinking of his concertos, symphonies, and sonatas.)

The three movements are Allegro, Andante, and Vivace non troppo.  It is interesting to note that this was Brahms’ last orchestral work.

Perhaps some of the flatness can be blamed on the concert hall.  It is huge, and not with the greatest of acoustics.  A few years ago we visited Tonhalle in Zurich, which seats perhaps 1500 people (compared to 2800 here), and has excellent acoustics.  Why do I mention that again?  Brahms was the one who led the first concert in Tonhalle when it opened in 1895, so perhaps he wrote music that works best in a more intimate venue?  Of course his other works can sound great in these large modern concert halls also.  [How’s that for taking many sides of the same issue?]

After the break, Zhang took up the microphone to talk briefly about the Strauss piece.  He wrote that at age 17 (no typo).  Although Strauss was a violin player, his father Franz played the horn, and was very good at it.  That may explain why at that young age he knew enough about the different wind instruments to make the best use out of them.  Zhang mentioned that the middle section has four horns playing a chorale, accompanied by the bassoon, and asked the audience to envision the pride Franz must have felt when he either read or played the music.  It was a nice short piece (11 minutes) and could also serve to introduce the different wind instruments to someone new to classical music (echoes of Young Person’s Guide still in my head, evidently.)  I am still not sure if the French horn is woodwind or brass, or both.

The problem with raising expectations is it makes those expectations difficult to fulfill.  We were listening for this horn chorale intently, and cringed when we heard it as the instruments sounded unsteady.  Perhaps it is the difficult nature of the passage, perhaps the players were nervous, or perhaps we expected perfection; whatever the cause, it was a bit of a letdown.  To be fair, the passage actually sounded fine generally.

Mozart’s 39th symphony is the first of his last trilogy of symphonies, autographed within a span of six weeks.  Even though the Program Notes calls this the “forgotten member” of the trilogy, it is familiar enough.  In this case Zhang led a joyful and brilliant rendition of a delightful composition, having a lot of fun herself in the process, no doubt.  The audience thoroughly enjoyed it, if the applause afterwards was any indication.  I certainly did.

The 25 minute symphony has four movements: Adagio-Allegro, Andante con moto; Menuetto: Allegretto, and Allegro.

I remember Zhang as very energetic in the 2007 performance, jumping all over the podium.  Tonight she was also quite energetic, but managed to stay on the podium most of the time.  While she is no doubt a competent conductor, I wonder if she will get an opportunity to have a breakthrough and get into the company of great masters.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Metropolitan Opera – Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. April 29, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat C120, $121.50).

Story.  Cavalleria Rusticana.  While Turiddu is off to war, his love Lola marries Alfio.  Turiddu returns and lives with Santuzza, resulting in her being rejected by the church.  When Turiddu rekindles his passion with Lola, the jealous Santuzza tells Alfio about his wife’s infidelity.  When Alfio sees Turiddu, he challenges him to a duel.  Turridu accepts and is killed. 

Story.  Pagliacci.  Canio and Nedda are leaders of a theatrical company.  The clown Tonio’s advances are rejected by Nedda, who is in love with Silvio instead.  The two’s plan to run away is overheard by Tonio, who in turns alerts Canio.  At sundown, the villagers gather to watch the performance of Columbine, played by Nedda, and her husband Pagliaccio, played by Canio.  The comedy proceeds along well until Canio snaps and kills Nedda and Silvio as he rushes to her aid.

Cavalleria Rusticana.  Conductor – Fabio Luisi; Turiddu – Marcelo Alvarez, Santuzza – Eva-Maria Westbroek, Mamma Lucia – Jane Bunnell, Alfio – George Gagnidze, Lola – Ginger Costa-Jackson. 
Pagliacci.  Conductor – Fabio Luisi; Tonio – George Gagnidze, Canio – Marcelo Alvarez, Beppe – Andrew Stenson, Nedda – Patricia Racette, Silvio – Lucas Meachem.

Both Anne and I are quite sure we have seen this combination a couple of times.  Once at the Met, and once at the NYC Opera (the latter we are a bit hazy about.)  Since I can’t find any entry in this blog, that would mean we saw it before my blogging days.  The most memorable number from Cavalleria is the intermezzo, and the one from Pagliacci is the aria “Vesti la giubba.”  I have some memories of the story (especially Pagliacci as our high school orchestra played a few excerpts.)  While none of these factors is compelling enough for us, we kept this performance because we simply ran out of exchange options, and that this is a new production.

It was a good thing we did.  We certainly enjoyed the program.  What I am most pleased is learning (or perhaps re-learning) many aspects of the operas.

Whenever there is a new production, one can always find a writeup in the Playbill.  In most instances the writers seem to make a big deal out of them.  Sometimes the enthusiasm is justified, but oftentimes not.  This production is one that doesn’t justify the level of excitement.  The good news is that they work.  The constant is provided by the walls in the background.  For Cavalleria the space is used as the courtyard outside a church, for Pagliacci it is the outdoor space where the traveling theater sits.  Pagliacci is placed in 1949, so there are electric pole and street lights, and the theater rides on a truck.  The other constant is the constant movement of chairs, variously to represent the inside of a church and seating for the show.  What I don’t understand is the circular arrangement at the beginning of Cavalleria.  It makes for an interesting sight.  So the sets work, but not spectacularly so.

People either get married or die at the end of an opera (most operas, anyway), and in this case we have deaths in both instances, and they were caused by jealousy.  The Playbill does point out the ritualistic aspects of Cavalleria compared to the more chaotic settings of a traveling troupe.  One shouldn’t read too much into this though: the two works were written independently.  It was the Met that first put them together in one evening, but I suspect it was done more for expedient reasons that for the intellectual musings that ensue.

I am quite sure I have not seen one particular opera more than the other, so it puzzles me when I discover I am much more familiar with the music in Cavalleria than I am with Pagliacci (and I was exposed to the latter while in high school.)  The Met orchestra did a great job with the music and the audience showed its appreciation, the music’s relative simplicity notwithstanding.  With Pagliacci the familiar tune has about a 25-note segment that defines the opera, and interestingly that is enough to hold the audience (well, the drama and other musical numbers help.)

The singing is fine.  We had seen Eva-Maria Westbroek before as Sieglinde in Die Walkure, and she did well. Patricia Racette as Nedda also sang well.  I thought it took a lot of courage for her to dress up as Columbine; Anne thought she pulled it off.  The singer in the role of Beppe looked Asian but has a non-Asian last name; I checked the Met website, it was indeed Stenson.  Marcelo Alvarez sang both lead roles, but I thought his voice weakened in the course of the evening.  Gagnidze also sang in both operas.  Also, at the beginning of Pagliacci Tonio stands in front of a curtain and does a rather long introduction; perhaps they should make the curtain a solid one so his voice could come across better?  As it was, he had to work very hard to get himself heard.

Overall this was a good experience, not earth-shattering, but much more enjoyable than I expected.  It also confirms that seeing something again would lead to new understanding and insight into the work, although at $100 a ticket an expensive proposition.

The New York Times review is generally positive.  The reviewer’s major complaint is the overuse of the rotating platform.  His take on the circle of chairs at the beginning of Cavalleria?  That in the small village everyone sees other people’s business.  Not bad.

We went up to Jersey City in the afternoon to pick up Reid to see a doctor; he had an overreaction to insect bites he got while we were in Turks and Caicos.  Anne and I had takeout from Five Guys before we drove into the city.  Traffic nowadays is more congested: signs of impending summer.

Friday, May 01, 2015

BBC Concert Orchestra – Keith Lockhart, conductor; Charlie Albright, piano. April 26, 2015.

NJ State Theatre, Orchestra (Seat K6, $15).

Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Piano Concerto in G Major (1929-31) by Ravel.
March “Crown Imperial” (1937, rev. 1953, edited Vilem Tausky) by William Walton (1902-83).
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 (1905-6, rev. 1914) by Vaughan William (1872-1958).
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – variations and fugue on a theme of Henry Purcell, Op. 34 (1945) by Britten (1913-76).

Amazon Local had tickets on sale for $15 each, which was just too good a bargain to pass up, even though that meant a third concert in three days.  Lockhart is well-known for leading the Boston Pops Orchestra, it turns out he is also the principal conductor for this BBC Concert Orchestra.  BBC has many different ensembles, I have no idea where this ranks in terms of prestige, other than it’s not being a “full” orchestra.  The orchestra managed to fill the entire stage, though.

I remember listening to Le Tombeau de Couperin a while ago, but don’t remember much of it.  Ostensibly written as a tribute to fallen soldiers of WWI, and in the style of Couperin, the Program Notes says there is not much to either the memorial aspect or Couperin (to the latter point, it is French music in general.)  I certainly didn’t hear much sadness in the music, which in general was quite enjoyable.  Looking back at my earlier blog entry (way back in 2007, New York Philharmonic conducted by Salonen), I had similar feelings then.

The four movements are (i) Prelude: Vif [Lively]; (ii) Forlane: Allegretto; (iii) Menuet: Allegro moderato; and (iv) Rigaudon: Assez vif [Fairly lively].

Also going over my blog, I have heard Ravel’s piano concerto quite a few times the last few years, most recently last month.  Perhaps these soloists have a herd mentality, or perhaps I should start to study the piece seriously?  Charlie Albright is a young fellow who is evidently gifted academically and musically, graduating from a Junior College while in high school, and eventually getting degrees from Harvard and New England Conservatory.  He plays with a lot of flourish (some not necessary, in my judgment), too bad the acoustics is such that I often couldn’t hear him.  The passages I heard were impressive though.

This was the final concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra for this US tour, 14 in 21 days (not sure I remember the numbers right.)  Must be exhilarating for a young person starting out his career.

In case there was any worry that the first part of the program was a bit too high-browed, and non-British (we are talking about Keith Lockhart and a BBC orchestra,) the second half’s pieces were in the pops category and works by British composers.  Per Lockhart, three of his four favorite modern British composers.  He also shed a bit of light on the pieces we were about to hear.

The “Crown Imperial” March was written for the occasion of Edward VIII’s coronation.  It was performed for George VI instead, as Edward VIII abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.  The piece was also performed on multiple royal occasions, including the recent marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton in 2011.  One is to be excused if this is confused with Edgar’s Pomp and Circumstance.

Vaughan Williams wrote three Norfolk Rhapsodies but withdrew two of them, so there is now only one.  The tunes were collected during his visit and, together with his memory of the landscape, formed the basis of the work.  I do not know the tunes, but the piece sounded nice.

Britten’s Young Person’s Guide and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf are both well-known pieces ostensibly for introducing children to the orchestra.  The latter is much better known (we just heard it on the way back from New York yesterday – Wednesday.)  Britten’s piece is similar in purpose, and does it with a theme, 13 variations (labeled with letters), and a fugue.

The ensemble played two additional encore pieces.  The first one took care of Lockhart's other favorite composer: Salut d'Armour by Elgar, a delightfully light-hearted piece.  I didn't get the name of the second one.

I wonder about the state of classical music in New Jersey.   Today’s performance was of high caliber, yet attendance was quite poor.  It’s the theme with many of the concerts we have been to.  I suppose a lot of people who want to follow a great orchestra will go with New York Philharmonic, and both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall get world-class artists to perform on their stages.  Is there anything New Jersey can do to attract people from out of town?  Perhaps bus rides to get people from the city to the venues?