Friday, June 12, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake. Alan Gilbert, conductor. June 11, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat R113, $64.50).

Jeanne d’Arc au bucher (1935, prologue 1944) by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955).

Come de Bellescize, director.
Cast.  Joan – Marion Cotillard, Brother Dominuqe – Eric Genovese, Narrator and other roles – Christian Gonon; Erin Morley, Simone Osborne, Faith Sherman, Thomas Blondelle, Steven Humes, Charlotte Knutsen, Dashel Grossman, Thijs Beuming.
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, director
Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun-Menaker, director
Pierre Vallet, chorus master

Story.  Joan of Arc is handed over to the English after being captured by the Burgundians in battle.  She is tried and convicted as a heretic and is burnt at the stake in Rouen.  Facing her execution, Joan thinks back through her life with the help of a book brought in by Brother Dominique.  The flames rise to consume her as her book is closed.  The work is divided into a Prologue and eleven scenes: The Voices of Heaven, The Book, The Voices of Earth, Joan Given Up to the Beasts, Joan at the Stake, The Kings (or The Invention of the Game of Cards), Catherine and Marguerite, The King Sets Out for Rheims, THe Sword of Joan, Trimazo, and The Burning of Joan of Arc.

While we were in France last week we visited Chinon, Loire.  In town there stands a bronze statue of Joan of Arc in armor riding on a horse, and there are various institutions (such as a clinic) called J d’Arc in the area.  A peasant girl who was illiterate, she led France in many successful battles against the English in the 15th Century, but was eventually captured and burned at the stake, at the age of 19.

In front of the Jeanne d'Arc Statue in Chinon, France.

Tonight’s event is not easily categorized.  A staged opera is probably the closest descriptive term.  There is a set alright, but it consists of only one item: the stake.  The rest of the set is basically a walkway around the stage.  The cast and the singers have costumes, of an indeterminate period.  The NY Choral Artists (women only) are in white robes – angels?  The Youth Chorus members are dressed as peasants.  The Program Notes describes Marion Cotillard as a famous French actress who won an Oscar, so I said to Anne, “and she evidently could also sing.”  Turns out the three main characters (Joan, Brother Dominique, and the Narrator) didn’t sing at all.  The only exception was Joan singing a simple children’s song towards the end.  In that regard one can be excused as calling this a play.  With the help of overhead subtitles, I could readily follow the drama of the dialog (written by Paul Claudel, in a few days per the Playbill.)

Before the performance began, members of the orchestra, all dressed in black, seated themselves in the made up pit, which consists of the first rows of the auditorium surrounded by the aforementioned “stage.”  As a result, our Row R seats were actually about 10 rows from the stage.  What was unexpected was that Gilbert was already seated in the front, he simply stood up to get things going.

Turns out we had heard Honegger before; once, performed by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.  Looking back over my blog, I wasn’t particularly impressed with him then.  With a story, and writing for a much larger ensemble, I found his music in turn dramatic, irreverent, and poignant.  The Playbill talks about how imaginative his orchestration is, such as the use of animals to portray the kangaroo court that convicts Joan.  This was also the first time I came across the instrument “ondes martinot.”

The orchestra put in a delightful performance, either on their own or in support the action on stage as well as the vocalists.  The singers did very well also.  In any case, Gilbert seemed to be enjoying himself tremendously.  The performance was well appreciated, if the applause at curtain call was any indication.

Curtain call after the performance.

The logistics required to put this together must be quite daunting, and all participants must be congratulated for pulling it off, with flying colors.  The sound system has to turned on for the dialog, I can imagine the sound control folks having a busy time.  In the Playbill we read that rehearsals were at the New 42nd Street Studios.

The entire program was slightly over an hour.  We managed to get home a few minutes after 10 pm.

The New YorkTimes reviewer didn’t spare any word in praising the concert.  He even went so far as to ask the question “Will Mr. Gilber’ts successor bring such a clear artistic and intellectual mission to the Philharmonic?”  Well, if he had spoken up more often perhaps things would be different?  The review was beautifully written, but I do take some issue with the title “In ‘Joan of Arc at the Stake,’ Beasts With Burden of Judging.”

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Jacques Lacombe, conductor; Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano. June 7, 2015.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC.  Tier G (Seat C106, $37.)

Program – All Beethoven
Corialan Overture, Op. 62 (1807).
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, “Emperor,” Op. 73 (1809).
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 (1807-08).

Per the Program Notes, the piano concerto is the inspiration for today’s concert.  The overture and the symphony were both written around the same time, and also related key-wise as they are both in C minor.  On this point only people with perfect pitch can appreciate; I am not one of them.  Nonetheless both the concerto and the symphony are well-loved pieces, that we also have an overture in the program is a bonus.

The source of the overture is a drama by Heinrich von Collin, based on the same story as Shakespeare’s play.  It speaks of indecision and suicide, and the hero is destroyed at the end.  While I may not get the end result of “a tad depressing, but it is powerful in its finality,” I certainly enjoyed this relatively long (at 9 minutes) and not-often-performed music.

Of Beethoven’s five piano concertos and nine symphonies, the fifth in each category must be the most popular of the two genres.  They are probably the reasons this afternoon’s concert was nearly sold out.

The orchestra and the soloist gave competent renditions of both works, which were perhaps more formulaic than inspirational.  For the piano concerto, Hamelin just sat there and pounded out the notes with ease.  This is by no means an easy piece, but he made it look easy.  Our seats were quite close to the stage, and it appeared that he didn’t even break a sweat.  The orchestra was an equal partner with the soloist, providing support and contrast as necessary.

On a recent Jeopardy episode, no one could identify the Morse code …- as the theme from Beethoven’s fifth symphony, which was a bit surprising.  For today the notes that followed just came naturally, and rapidly.  For the next 30-some minutes the familiar sounds of the four movements (Allegro con brio; Andante con moto; Scherzo: Allegro; and Allegro) just flowed effortlessly in the auditorium.

We enjoyed the afternoon, as did the audience, if their applause was any indication.  Perhaps it is my growing respect for Lacombe and the Orchestra that made me wish for a more inspirational performance.

One other note, the General Manager (or CEO) of the Symphony came on stage at the beginning and acknowledged the service of members who have been with the organization for 25 years or more.  I was quite surprised at the large number of musicians in that category.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Opera National de Paris Ballet de l’Opera – Martinez’s Les Enfants du Paradis. June 4, 2015.

Palais Garnier, Paris, France.  Balcony (Seat 15, E130.)

Story. Garance is a lovely woman who refuses to settle down with one man.  She is courted by many men, including Frederick and Baptiste.  When Baptiste expresses his love for her, Garance is not ready to commit to the relationship, so Baptiste leaves.  Later, she is accused (falsely) of taking part in a robbery and is bailed out by the rich Count, and she stays with him for several years.  Meanwhile, Baptiste gets married and has a child.  He also becomes a successful mime.  Garance goes to the theatre regularly in secret to watch his performance.  When they finally meet again, they reconnect.  After Baptiste’s wife makes a plea that he stay with the family, Garance leaves.

Conductor – Jean=Francois Verdier.  Garance – Laetitia Pujol, Baptiste – Mathieu Ganio, Frederick – Karl Paquette, Lacenaire – Vincent Chaillet, Nathalie – Muriel Zusperreguy, Madame Hermine – Stephane Romberg, Le Comte – Benjamin Pech.

Musicians.  Thibault Vieux, Violin; Michel Dietlin, Piano; Simon Delfin, Bass; Paul Lepicard, Trumpet; Anthony Millet – Accordion; Stephane Chauveau, Percussions.

We really wanted to see an Opera at the most famous opera house in the world, the Palais Garnier.  However, with nearly all operas now performed at Bastille (actually any time I check,) this is not to be.  So we would settle on a ballet instead.  The only show that worked for us was tonight’s show, a work I had never heard before, by someone I didn’t know.

When I went to the box office for tickets in the afternoon, I was told only the most expensive and the cheapest seats were available.  I decided to spend E260 for two tickets instead of E24, figuring the better seats would give us a better experience.

First a bit about the story.  Figuring I won’t spend the money for a Program I don’t understand anyway, I decided to read up a little from the web.  Les Enfants in Paradis (Children in Paradise) is a 1945 film set in 1830-era Paris.  “Paradis” refers to the cheap seats in a theatre, and the main characters in the story are performers.  The main story is about the love interests of Garance and the unrequited love between her and Baptiste, which is confusing enough.  On top of that are several side stories that add to the complexity.  I could only find a listing of the Acts (2) and Scenes (12) on the web and the handout which are not that informative.  The story as told in the ballet is also different.  So I was left with the music, the dancing, and stitching the story together the best I could.  Which kept me quite busy, it turns out.

Given the enormous size of the palais, we were surprised at how small the auditorium is (seats fewer than 2000).  It dates back to around 1875, and shows its age.  However, it is easy to see how opulent it was during its prime.  On the ceiling is a painting by Marc Chagall (installed in 1964), depicting scenes from ballets and operas such as “Swan Lake” and “The Magic Flute.”  Our seats were indeed good, in the balcony but about only 20 rows from the stage.  We don’t have a full view of the orchestra though.

Jose Martinez used to be a dancer at the Opera Ballet, and this was his invention.  He danced this as his farewell performance at the Ballet a few years ago.  The original music was written by Marc-Olivier Dupin.  But there was a lot of familiar music incorporated into the 2 hour or so program, including some I would characterize as “Ocktoberfest” music.  For some scenes individual musicians would be on stage for the performance.  I enjoy particularly the playing of the solo violinist, so much so that I sometimes ignored what the dancers were doing.  The orchestra was small, but produced a great sound.

Much of the dancing is not what I would consider traditional ballet; sometimes I even wondered if they were doing pantomines.  There are some exceptions such as the ballroom scene and the beginning of Act 2.  As expected, Garance is called on to do a lot of the heavy lifting as the story is mostly about her, and she got the story across well.

Anne read that Palais Garnier was designed in such a way that the audience can interact with the cast.  There was certainly some of that.  As we entered there was juggling and drumming going on.  During the intermission the solo violinist was playing in the atrium and jugglers were out and about.  There were instances the dancers would come to the audience.  When Garance departed for the last time, she was lowered from the stage to the orchestra pit, then carried across to walk away from the auditorium.  The most interesting aspect was during the intermission there were students on stage rehearsing Othello, and the action eventually morphed into the ballet scene I mentioned above.

Curtain call was a lengthy affair.  Ballet de corps, followed by the soloists, then the principals.  Next came the conductor, the choreographer (I assume), and the violin soloist.  Repeat.  Then more applause as bouquets were thrown onto the stage for one of the ballerinas.  We are guessing this was her farewell performance – too bad we couldn’t tell which role she played.

Paris being at the latitude it is, there was still light when we left.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Opera National de Paris – Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus. June 2, 2015.

Opera Bastille, Paris, France.  Premier Balcony (Seat K9-2, E100).

Story.  After celebrating the defeat of the Saxons by King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, Lancelot meets Arthur’s wife Guinevere for a tryst, an act witnessed by Mordred, Arthur’s cousin and a pretender to the throne.  Lancelot fights Mordred and wounds him.  Fleeing with Guinevere to his castle, Lancelot learns that Mordred has survived and has revealed the truth to Arthur.  Arthur consults Merlin who foretells the downfall of the Round Table.  After unsuccessfully pleading with Lancelot to deny their affair, Guinevere strangles herself with her own hair. Meanwhile, Lancelot goes to battle and is mortally wounded.  Before he dies, Arthur tells him that he is forgiven.  Arthur subsequently dies also.

Conductor – Philippe Jordan.  Genievre – Sophie Koch, Arthus – Thomas Hampson, Lancelot – Roberto Alagna, Mordred – Alexandre Duhamel, Lyonnel (Lancelot’s aide) – Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Merlin – Peter Sidhom.

We are in Paris for a few days to conclude our France trip with Ellie, Kuau, and Reid.  We had a choice between this opera and the Magic Flute.  For various reasons including scheduling, we decided to attend this one.  Right after we settled in our Airbnb apartment, I went to Opera Bastille to purchase these tickets.  Our row at the back of the Premier Balcony section was quite empty, but otherwise attendance seemed to be quite good in this 2700-seat auditorium.

The story perhaps should be titled “The Last Days of King Arthur” as it talks about the deaths of his wife, his best friend, and himself.  I do not know much about Arthur beyond the Ex-Caliber and the Round Table, and this aspect of his life was certainly not familiar.  Since Arthur is a fictional character, I assume different story lines can be attributed to him.

The “story” I wrote above is mostly from the wiki article on the opera, augmented by what I actually saw during the performance.  Anne and I were resigned to sit through a lot of singing that we could not understand, comforted by the fact that the story line is simple enough so we should be able to construct it as it progresses.  We were very pleased, and relieved, as the overhead projection asking people to turn off their cell phones in three languages (French, English, and German) turned into surtitles in two languages (French and English.)

As a violin student, the only work by Ernest Chausson I knew about was his “poeme” for violin and orchestra (turns out other arrangements exist.)  He evidently was born into a very rich family, trained as a lawyer, and died in 1899 at age 44 when he hit a brick wall while riding a bicycle.  His only opera was completed in 1895, but wasn’t premiered until 1903.

I enjoyed the opera from the get go: an enthusiastic overture that led to the raising of the curtain.  To the extent I managed to pay attention to the orchestra, particular at the start of the three acts and during the scenery changes, it did a superb job.  We picked the seats in the balcony over the orchestra for the reason that we could have a good look at the orchestra, and it was the right decision.  Philippe Jordan conducted with great enthusiasm, responded in kind by the players.

The singing by the principals was uniformly good.  I would only quibble a bit with Hampson’s mid-range which was on the weak side.  We saw Sophie Koch a while ago as Charlotte in Werther, opposite Jonas Kaufman.  There I thought she did a great job, but could use a “soft” in her volume setting.  That was uniformly the case this evening: everyone was trying to belt out their lyrics, admittedly a better alternative than not being heard.  There are many documents in the web debating if Opera Bastille utilizes a sound enhancement system.  I can’t tell, but can be convinced that they do given how strong everyone sounded.  The chorus had only a couple of short passages, but was quite impressive.

There are quite a few duets between Lancelot and Guinevere.  The first of which was a love song in Scene 2 of Act 1.  I don’t know French, but have always enjoyed French love songs.  I must say while the individual singing was good, the two voices didn’t blend well together at all.  If I were a musicologist, I might offer the opinion that this was by design to foretell the trouble that would come later.  Or I can be like most critics and simply say that it is bad music (more on that later.)

Opera Bastille was completed in 1990, and one of its features is the ability to accommodate complicated sets.  That wasn’t necessary today as the set would even fit the budget of (the now-defunct) New York City Opera.  One basically has as the backdrop a painting of a hill and a tower (must be of some significance in Arthurian lore,) a circle staked out by swords, two walls of a house, and this ubiquitous red sofa.  Two thirds of the sofa was ablaze in Act 3, the flames were so high that I wondered if the sprinklers would go off (and worried that they didn’t.)

We didn’t buy a program both for its cost (E12) and the fact that it is in French.  I did look up a few web articles on the opera, most of the writers were down on the opera.  Evidently Chausson wanted to write like a French Wagner (my words), particularly in the style of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal, and most critics thought he failed miserably.  Evidently Tristan and Isolde found their re-incarnations as Lancelot and Guinevere, and Erda as Merlin.  Indeed one can find parallels to both Wagner operas if one chooses to do so, with one exception to Chausson’s advantage: this opera is much shorter at about 2:45 hours actual performance time.  While the long passages must be difficult, they must be easy compared to the demands of Wagner.

I found several scenes rather compelling.  One was Guinevere’s suicide: she complained to her dark hair that it wasn’t beautiful enough to help her keep Lancelot’s love, but asked it to end her life (Guinevere in this opera had either blonde or brown hair.)  The solo viola accompanying her singing was simply exquisite.  Guinevere started as a selfish control freak at the beginning of the opera, and manages to morph into a sympathetic figure, which is quite a feat. The other was Arthur telling Lancelot that his honor depends on himself, and not on others.  The actual words were more poignant than this.

I did find the last part of the opera puzzling.  As Arthur faces death, the dead soldiers around him (including Lancelot who was sitting in this – what else – red sofa) began to rise and walk off the stage.

It’s a pity that this opera probably won’t get staged very often.  I am glad we got a chance to see it.

New York Philharmonic – Susanna Malkki, conductor; Kirill Gerstein, piano. May 21, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat CC10, $64.50.)

Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a (1873) by Brahms (1833-97).
Tranquil Abiding (1998) by Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1858) by Brahms.

Nathan and Sharon are in town, so we decided to make an evening of it by having dinner followed by a concert.  Even though I thought I left in time, early summer traffic, on a Thursday before the long Memorial Day weekend, proved to be quite heavy.  We were a bit late getting to dinner at Atlantic Grill. The place was packed and service was slower than the last time I visited, so it was eat, ask for the check, pay, and walk quickly to Lincoln Center.  Anne had to leave earlier to pick up the concert tickets, I moved a couple of our concerts to get four tickets.  Even though the concert was nearly sold out, I still managed rather good seats in the First Tier.

There is quite a bit of discussion in the Playbill about how well designed the Variations are, including how wonderful it is that the 5-measure theme manages to sound balanced.  The theme (Chorale St. Antoni) is familiar, and the variations delightful.  They are different from some other variations (say, Rachmaninoff’s variations on a theme by Paganini) in that it was relatively easy to relate the different movements to one another.  Brahms liked to collect old works, and had copied the theme in 1870 (still a teenager.) This work has made the Haydn theme very well-known, thus it is quite ironic that most musicologists now believe Haydn didn’t write the tune.  Brahms also published the same work (Op. 56b) for two pianos.

As a listener the 19 or so minute piece is light-hearted and easy-listening.  I would need the score, and a lot of time, to appreciate the subtleties of the work.  In addition to the theme (Andante) and the Finale (Andante), there are eight variations: poco piu animato, piu vivace, con moto, andante con moto, vivace, vivace, grazioso, and presto non troppo.

Of the two Brahms’ piano concertos, I usually prefer the more serene and subtle No. 2.  I didn’t realize this was written when Brahms was only about 25, that he was the soloist at its premiere, and that it took a lot of persuasion by Joachim before Brahms would publish the work.  Today’s performance was certainly majestic and enjoyable.  The balance was uniformly great (for our seats), and both the piano and the orchestra held their own as equal partners.  Actually right at this moment I can’t recall the tunes in Concerto No. 2.  (I am inside BA8004 EWR-Paris Orly as I type this; and I did find the second concerto in my iPhone.)

I believe this is the first time we heard Gerstein, and he is certainly impressive.  For someone as careful as Brahms, it certainly took a long time to say what he wanted to say (about fifty minutes, with three movements Maestoso, Adagio, and Rondo – Allegro non troppo.  I did find the second movement a bit too slow, but was surprised to find that it was quite long at more than fifteen minutes – it felt much shorter than that, makes me wonder if they edited some parts out.

Jonathan Harvey was a British composer who died in 2012 from motor neuron disease.  His daily routine was a “Buddhist inspired meditation” although he claimed not be a Buddhist.  Having written work relating to other religions (Hinduism, for instance,) this piece suggests a Buddhist concept.  The Playbill quotes the composer “It’s for music to articulate the true nature of man in his blissful, enlightened forms.  No less than that should be demanded.  It’s a way of charm and simplicity which no verbal concepts, least of all mine, can ever encapsulate.”  With remarks like that, I can imagine being inside a monastery, with the percussion (including bamboo clusters and bells) providing the requisite sounds.  Sharon summed it up best: very zen.

I think both the orchestra and the audience need to be tuned to this “zen” for the music to be effective.  In my case, I tried to analyze the piece, catch the structure as outlined in the Playbill, and watch the different percussion instruments at work.  This resulted in my not able to listen to the music and to put myself in it.

We saw Susanna Malkki in a Mostly Mozart concert a couple of years ago, and she’s quite competent.  She seemed too mechanical in how she led the Harvey piece, although I certainly couldn’t blame her for that, and in the Brahms’ piece I didn’t find the great inspiration I associate with a great conductor.  But I will go to another of his concerts.

Afterwards we said our goodbyes to Nathan and Sharon, and drove back to NJ.