Sunday, September 27, 2015

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – Louis Langree, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. September 26, 2015.

Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio.  Orchestra 2 (Seat 29-8, $70.)

Overture to Fidelio Op 72 (1814) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra (1931) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14a (1830) by Berlioz (1803-1869).

We again got to the venue early enough to hear the pre-concert talk, by CSO’s director of artistic administration Isaac Thompson (I think.)  His first remark was this is also a 3-B concert, although not quite the traditional 3-B people think of (and what we heard last night, with some qualifications.)  He then proceeded to describe the pieces on the program.  It took Beethoven on and off ten years to finish Fidelio, and he wrote four different overtures for it.  The Lenore Overtures are all popular concert pieces, and the one heard today is now considered the standard.  Bartok was a brilliant pianist and he wrote the piece with himself in mind as the soloist, trying to make it easier to play than the incredibly difficult first concerto.  In that regard he didn’t succeed – not that I would be able to tell.  Thompson’s take on Symphonie fantastique is similar to what I heard in Lincoln Center a couple of years back, although he didn’t mention the role of Dies Irae in the final movement.

Built in 1878, Music Hall is a large building, and the main auditorium. seating over 3500 people per Wikipedia, is the fourth largest concert hall in the United States.  Its acoustics are also supposed to be quite good.  Even though we had the “cheap seats” in the back, we thought in general it lived up to its reputation; however, the humming of the air conditioning made some of the softer passages a bit difficult to get.

I have heard Fidelio in concert, and - even though I can’t tell them apart - I know the overtures quite well.  They are all enjoyable pieces, and it is puzzling to me why the opera is not staged more often; indeed I am not aware of its being staged anywhere.  In any case, the overture was a good start for the evening, the six minutes went by very quickly.  Langree elicited a good sound, with great contrast and drama, from the orchestra.  I wondered whether he needed such exaggerated movements to get what he wanted; I would end up wondering about this the entire evening.

The 25 or so minute Bartok concerto consists of three movements: Allegro, Adagio-Presto-Adagio, and Allegro Molto.  The first movement was an interesting dialog between the soloist and the orchestra (no strings.)  Initially there were only strings in the second movement, and the whole movement had a mysterious air to it.  The quiet passages were played a bit too quietly, so much so that coughs, rustling papers, and creaky chairs (including mine) became major distractions; and it was then that I noticed the air conditioning’s sound.  The third wasn’t quite a free-for-all, but was wild enough.  I had never heard this before, so a lot of the music just swept by me.  The Program Notes also talks of Bartok’s love of symmetry.  For this concerto the outer movements are fast, and the middle movement is slow-fast-slow. I did get the second movement, and don’t most concertos have fast first and last movements?  As with other Bartok pieces, I am sure I will like it if given the chance to hear it more often. 

Bronfman played an encore, probably by Schumann.

Even the subject matter for Symphonie fantastique is a bit macabre, it is a very attractive piece of work.  Berlioz was about 30 years younger than Beethoven, but their musical styles were vastly different – you would never mistake the two of them.  This was a great performance, and I could tell the audience was captivated by the story of unrequited love, drug-induced hallucination, death, and hell.  The only thing we missed was the dialog between the oboe and the English horn, our seats were such that we heard the oboe’s sound as reflected from the stage, so didn’t get the “stereo” effect.  Also, many in the audience thought the piece ended after the fourth movement.  It is always a good idea to read the Program Notes beforehand.  For the record, the five movements are (i) Reveries, Passions; (ii) A Ball; (iii) Scene in the Country; (iv) March to the Scaffold; and (v) Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath.

The Program Notes also contains a very detailed description of the piece and Berlioz’s history with the subject of the composition: Harriet Smithson.  The score calls for six harps, only four were used for the performance.  While understandable for practical and budgetary reasons, they could have used the two additional harps.

At the beginning of the concert, the President of the CSO came out and announced that (i) they just completed contract negotiations with the musicians, and they are set for another 5 years; (ii) they successfully raised $26 million so they could add 14 players to their organization; and (iii) someone just endowed a new chair for a horn player.  In contrast to Pittsburgh, attendance was good today.  And we are talking about a much larger auditorium.

When the term CSO is mentioned, most people think of the other orchestra: Chicago Symphony.  I assume they are not in the same league yet, but it won’t surprise me that in a few years Cincinnati will be associated with CSO for many folks outside of this area.  Indeed they are going to Lincoln Center this season.

It’s been an exhausting few days, but Anne and I both enjoyed the trip.  It is not such a crazy idea, and we might even try some other combinations of orchestras in the future.  I didn't come to Cincinnati with high expectations, and was pleasantly surprised.  I often joke that people should go out more, that applies to me as well.

[Note added: The orchestra played the National Anthem with the audience on their feet at the beginning; I don't recall ever seeing that.  Also, all three conductors are Europeans; nothing wrong with that, but where are the well-known American conductors?]

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra – Manfred Honeck, conductor; Augustin Hadelich, violin. September 25, 2015.

Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, PA.  Orchestra Center (Seat L108, $79.)

Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for Unaccompanied Violin in D minor, BWV 1004 (1720) by Bach (1685-1750), arranged for String Orchestra by Hideo Saito.
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1811-12) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 77 (1878) by Brahms (1833-1897).

This is the second day of our 3-day concert trip.  We ate a dinner at an India restaurant near our downtown Pittsburgh hotel, and were able to attend the 7 pm pre-concert talk, by the young assistant conductor of the orchestra, Francesco Lecce-Chong.

He pointed out the obvious, which was that this concert is an often-talked-about-but-seldom-programmed BBB concert: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  The purist would say the first B is somewhat adulterated, the original was for a solo violin, but tonight we would hear an arrangement made for a string orchestra.  We had heard a couple of times the arrangement made for one piano, left hand, and Lecce-Chong pointed out a couple of other arrangements, including one for a violin with piano accompaniment.  He played some excerpts from the different “versions,” and they sounded very different.

Many people consider Beethoven’s Eighth to be somewhat out of place.  The fifth has its well-known “victory” theme, the sixth is the first symphony as “program music,” the seventh is revered as the apotheosis of the dance by none other than Richard Wagner, and we all know the seminal ninth as the Choral Symphony.  Lecce-Chong used a few points to illustrate the uniqueness of the Eighth, including the fact that Beethoven threw tradition progression in the face, sometimes by repeating a chord (or “dischord”) several times.  Indeed, I can hum the melodies of many movements of the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th readily from memory, but I have some trouble recalling those from the 8th, although I am not unfamiliar with the work.  The four movements are Allegro vivace e con brio, Allegretto scherzando, Tempo di minuetto, and Allegro vivace.  Beethoven did away with the slow movement and put in both a scherzo and a minuet.

Lecce-Chong also had a slightly different take on Brahms’ compulsion for needing his work to be perfect.  Most would attribute that partially to Beethoven’s huge shadow, and Lecce-Chong posited that Brahms felt confident after completing his first symphony that he in quick succession finished Piano concerto No. 2, the violin concerto, and Symphony No. 2.  He describes the violin’s part as virtuoso not for virtuoso’s sake, so a conductor never feels he/she is there simply to keep time during some of the flourisher moments, and thus there is a great partnership between the soloist and the orchestra.  He also noted that both Brahms’ and Beethoven’s Violin Concertos are in the same key.  I am in awe of how Beethoven managed to compose such a memorable work using such basic ingredients as scales and arpeggios.  In that sense Brahms had nothing over Beethoven.  Reasonable points, and of some interest.

Too bad only about 40 or 50 people sat through the 30-minute talk; and this was in the main auditorium, seating 2676 per Wikipedia.  Anne felt the building gives a feeling of intimacy.  I just thought there is a lot of elbow room – unlike Avery Fisher (now David Geffen) or Carnegie Hall.

As it got close to the start time of 8 pm, I was wondering where the people were.  The center row we were in, 11th from the front, has about 16 seats.  Six were occupied.  There was a large swath of empty seats in front of us.  The two rows behind us were quite empty also, although things were better in the back.  The balcony holds many seats, I couldn’t see up from where I was.  All I can say is I felt bad, but I also had the nagging feeling that this was not unusual.

I was surprised when the first piece was performed by a full orchestra, woodwind, brass, and percussion included.  It sounded like Bach’s Chaconne, but I at times doubted it.  I double checked the Program Notes, it kept on telling me the orchestration was for strings.  In any case, it was a nice piece of music that would be a good test of an orchestra’s range, as diverse tempo, volume, and degrees of difficulty are called for.  If I were to give out a grade, this would be a good but not exceptional performance.  There were quite a few rapid runs in various parts of the orchestra that sounded quite muddled.

The orchestra did much better with the Beethoven symphony.  Technically it may be a little easier than the arranged Bach Chaconne, it was still not an easy feat to keep it all together with the many starts and stops that are typical in Beethoven’s work – may be more than usual, per Lecce-Chong.  The current orchestra roster has no one as the concertmaster, and for this series the “guest” is Noah Geller, the concertmaster at Kansas City Symphony.  Auditioning, no doubt.  His instrument was quite prominent during this piece, which to me is a no-no for any section player.  However, he played very well, and didn’t “stand out” as much during the next piece.  Perhaps someone dropped a hint during the intermission?

I had heard Hadelich a couple of times before.  I recall I was not blown away with his New York Philharmonic performance, but really liked what he did with New Jersey Symphony in Princeton.  I called his encore (Paganini’s Caprice No. 24) perfect (or some words to that effect.)

He was a bit shaky at the beginning, not that he got any notes wrong, or he was visibly nervous.  But the sound was harsh and somewhat distant (remember, we were in row 11.)  A few minutes in, things improved greatly, the same instrument (the 1723 “Ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivarius) sounded smooth and intimate. Overall it was an excellent performance.  The first movement – Allegro non troppo - was so brilliantly done that I was sure people would applaud (they didn’t,) the second movement – Adagio -with its well-known oboe introduction, showcased a dialog between the orchestra and the soloist, and the third movement – Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace – had the soloist and orchestra challenging each other to great heights.  Many have described this concerto as one where the soloist works against the orchestra; Lecce-Chong would disagree with that assessment, and I agree with him.  While the violin is not the instrument that carries the bulk of the melody, the movement would not be close to complete without the plaintive voice of the instrument.

The applause was thunderous.  As encore Hadelich played Caprice No. 5 of Paganini.  It was impressive, although I wouldn’t use the term “perfect” in this instance.

While there are a few things to quibble with the concert, I actually enjoyed it, not only at the direct level, but also at a more intellectual level.  “Intellectual” is perhaps too strong a word, but the experience gave me new insight into several issues.

We had seen Honeck a couple of times before, most recently last summer during the Salzburg Festival.  He, and the orchestra, deserve a better audience that tonight’s attendance would indicate.  Pittsburgh is supposedly going through a revival, let’s hope the arts scene improves as well.

It will be a five hour drive to Cincinnati tomorrow.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Cleveland Orchestra – Franz Welser-Most, conductor. September 24, 2015.

Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio.  Dress Circle (Seat CC606, $89.)

Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”) in C major, K551 (1788) by Mozart (1756-1791).
An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64 (1915) by Richard Strauss (1864-1949).

Anne and I are on a 3-day 3-concert trip, visiting Cleveland, Pittsburg, and Cincinnati.  We have heard Louis Langree conduct the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra quite a few times over the past few summers, and would like to see how he does with his own orchestra on his own turf (Cincinnati).  A couple of months ago I heard Welser-Most and the Cleveland Orchestra perform two concerts at Lincoln Center, and like them very much, so again I wanted to see how they do at home.  Pittsburg turns out to be nearby, and it is where the last conductor of New York Philharmonic, the late Lorin Maazel, spent time in his early music career; that Honeck is the conductor also adds to the attractiveness.

The Cleveland Orchestra is the fifth oldest orchestra in the United States, and has always enjoyed a great reputation.  The conductors before Welser-Most were von Dohnanyi, Maazel, Boulez, and Szell, quite a list.  Severance Hall was constructed for the Cleveland Orchestra and opened in 1931.  According to the Wikipedia entry on the building, it has one of America’s greatest Art Deco interiors, the auditorium itself “glistens with Art Deco motifs in aluminum leaf,” which makes for a very bright stage; the stage, however, is modernist because of renovations for acoustics improvement.  It seats about 2,000.

We picked up the tickets at around 6:30 pm, and were told there was a pre-concert event in the Reinberger Chamber Hall.  It turns out to be an “interview” of Welser-Most about aspects of the new season.  A couple of interesting remarks.  Welser-Most said he kind of outgrew Wagner (except Parsifal and Meistersingers) but enjoys Strauss’s straightforwardness and simplicity.  He also mentioned that this season they will be doing two Bartok ballets: The Miraculous Mandarin and Bluebeard Castle that should drive the listener either to suicide or a large bottle of vodka.  A review of the year’s concerts shows a program on excerpts from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung; and Anne and I are somewhat interested in this ballet program.

Back to tonight’s concert.  The works were the last of the respective composer’s genre.  Mozart would die in about three years, and Strauss had another three decades to go.  Mozart’s is a “pure” music composition, while Strauss’s is a tone poem describing a day in the Alpines.  Someone who can translate this “book knowledge” into actual perception would probably appreciate the programming a lot; for me, the two work well individually.  Of course I don’t know what I missed.

Per the Program Notes, this symphony is known in Germany as “with the final fugue.”  There is a long description of each movement and how they transcend the traditional movement types from which they come.  The four movements are Allegro vivace, Andante cantabile, Menuetto: Allegro – Trio, and Molto allegro.  I really enjoyed the first and last movements, but had some trouble staying up for the middle two.

In my defense, we caught an early flight from Newark this morning, which necessitated our getting up at 5 am.  Being the night owl that I am, I got four hours of sleep last night.  I did nap for about 30 minutes this afternoon.

While the music is characteristically light and crisp, it also has a lot more “Sturm und Drang” than usual, so much so that I thought some passages were Beethoven-like.  The final movement does contain some fugue constructions (one particularly familiar passage comes to mind) that would explain the German description.  There is no accepted reason why it is called “Jupiter,” a possible explanation is Jupiter is the chief of gods in Roman mythology.

Musicologists debated the structure of this Mozart Symphony at length, and apparently they still do.  There is no doubt about what story Strauss was trying to tell in his Alpine Symphony.  The idea to write music about a hike in the Alps dated to Strauss’s childhood, and he did write some music to describe his own (mis)adventure hike where he got lost and was drenched by rain.  Most probably none of the original found its way into this work, completed some forty years later.  In any case, the tone poem begins and ends with night, with some interesting intervening events happening in between.  Strauss labeled the varying sections thus: Night, Sunrise, The Ascent Begins, Entering the Woods, Walking Along the Brook, At the Waterfall, Apparition, On Flowery Meadows, In the Mountain Pasture, Wrong Path through the Thicket, On the Glacier, Dangerous Moments, At the Summit, Vision, The Fog Rises, The Sun is Gradually Obscured, Elegy, Calm before the Storm, Thunder and Storm/Descent, Sunset, Journey’s End/Quieting, and Night; 22 in all.

I heard this work once before, some nine years ago, and I am sure I was lost then.  Today, the Cleveland Orchestra is considerate enough to project each of the label briefly so the audience could follow the story.  While the sections make sense, it is quite understandable why anyone who is not a Strauss expert may get hopelessly lost.  Strauss’s sunrise is spectacular, think Also Sprach Zarathustra, but my sunrise is quiet and slowly warms the day, so it would be natural for me to think I missed the sunrise when I hear this loud noise, and it will be impossible to recover.  Some of the sections are very short, I think “The Fog Rises” was not even 30 seconds in length, and thus easily missed.  By projecting 22 short phrases onto the stage, the appreciation of the music increases multifold – I wonder why this is the first time it has ever happened in my experience.  I remember spending a lot of time correlating the story behind the Rite of Spring to the music; it tool multiple listenings before I began to map the music to the description.

Most of the preceding paragraph was lifted from the Program Notes, which also talks about the orchestra being 120-strong.  Here is my attempt to count the musicians on stage: 35 violins, 11 violas, 12 cellos, 9 basses, 35 woodwind/brass, 5 percussion, 1 keyboard, 2 harps, and 5 percussions.  This is a fun piece to watch as it calls for a wind machine and a thunder machine (the latter being a shaken large metal sheet.)  I must say it is impressive how this large group managed to hang together and produce a coherent piece of music.

The orchestra played an encore, appropriately called “Moonlight.”

This was opening night for the season, and there was some excitement in the air.  Not as much as I expected, perhaps a reflection of the more reserved nature of Midwest folds.  And certainly not the black-tie event of the New York Philharmonic opening night.  Anne and I felt comfortable in our “business casual” attire.  There were a few empty seats, somewhat to my surprise.

We only had a quick meal beforehand at a nearby Qdoba, and I was hoping to catch a snack at the University Center food court.  The Center is open till 2 am, but the shops were all closed; it was before 10 pm.  And they call themselves a university?

Pittsburg next!