Saturday, October 31, 2015

Korea National Opera – Soul Mate by June Hee Lim. October 31, 2015.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre.  Stalls 2 (Seat S23, HK$315.)

Story.  For economic and political reasons, Mongwan and Seohyang are arranged to be married by their parents.  Neither wants to do so without love, so they switch places with their assistants Seodong and Ippuni to spy on the other person.  The two pairs end up falling in love with one another.  After their parents (who do not know of the new development) tear up the marriage contract, the two couples decide to elope.  Things are sorted out eventually and the two couples are married.

Conductor – Docki Kim.  Seohyang – Whal Ran Seo, Mongwan – Seung Mook Lee, Ippuni – Hyon Lee, Seodong – Dae San Noh.
Scala Opera Chorus: Byung Wook Lim – Conductor.
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

There are quite a few sopranos of Korean descent in the Metropolitan Opera, and some of them have taken on major roles (such as Gilda in Rigoletto.)  Many of these singers have been trained in Korea, so in my way of thinking Korea National Opera must be of certain standing.  Even though I had no idea what this opera would sound like, I was quite ready to give the performance a go, at a (discounted) price of about US$40 per ticket.

Poster advertisement for the opera found inside an MTR walkway.

Curtain call.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Actually I enjoyed the performance very much.

The set is very simple, in the center is a multi-level stage which rotates (it did so only during the last act to simulate movement of a ship.)  Props are dropped and raised as necessary to create the necessary sceneries, and projections on the backdrop show a moving moon and falling leaves.

The story is simple.  Indeed the synopsis of each half was first projected onto the displays on the two sides, and it is even simpler than what I summarize above.  As there is this “symmetry” between the major characters, and between the two families, many lines got used twice, and some got used four times.  Even though I am not good with Korean names, I had little trouble following the story.  And it is interesting to note all the names have meaningful Chinese translations.  Ippuni means “young beautiful girl” and Seodong means “book attendant.”

As a rule, there is chorus singing and dancing at the beginning and end of each act.  The artists are dressed in Korean costumes, the singing is great, and the movements are well-choreographed.  You wonder how much shorter the opera would be if those elements are eliminated.  At the end there was this interminable sequence of verses that made me feel things were dragging on for the first time.  With all that the opera runs about two hours.

To my ears, the music is mostly western with some foreign (which I assume to be Korean) elements thrown in.  It is generally tonal, easy to get, and sounded simple enough.  I could recognize most of the instruments and attributed the new sounds as coming from Korean instruments (flute and percussion; the Program has a listing of them.)  At times I felt like I was in a Broadway show.  At other times I felt like I was watching Lakmi when the two ladies sang a song that began like the “Flower Duet.”  Yet other moments reminded me of Madama Butterfly.

I suppose music critics have a lot to say about all that, and I could probably make a few more pretentious statements about the merits of the opera.  That would detract from the gut-level appeal it has for me, and that includes the simple story.

What is unquestionable is the quality of the singing, which was uniformly excellent.  I don’t know Korean, but with the aid of the projected subtitles, it was easy to follow the story along.  Taken as a whole the story is pedestrian, but taken one aria at a time there were many poignant moments where one could get caught up in the moment.

The orchestra and the conductor were generally hidden from view where we sat.  I thought the sound coming from the pit was great.  With the many “distractions” from the vocal singing, dancing, and scenery changes, I didn’t get to pay lot of attention to how the orchestral music sounded.

The word “grand” wouldn’t be used if I were to give the auditorium a name (it holds 1734 seats per Wikipedia.)  The seats are comfortable, the acoustics generally good, but the stage seems a bit small.  Having the subtitles projected onto the two sides of the stage proved somewhat distracting for me.  This was the first time we attended an event there, if memory serves.

We had a light snack with some Hope International folks before the opera, and most shops were closed when we got out (Hong Kong is overrated as an all-night city.)  We did manage to find something to eat (McDonalds and dim sum) at the Tai Po MTR station at around 11 pm.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Hong Kong Philharmonic – Christoph Eschenbach, conductor; Tzimon Barto, piano. October 24, 2015.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall.  Stalls 1 (Seat G38, HK$390.)

Carnival Overture by Dvorak.
Piano Concerto in F by Gershwin.
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 by Brahms.

We are visiting Hong Kong for about two weeks, and there are two or three concerts that have great potential.  This was the first one.  As seniors (age 60 and up) we got a 50% discount, so we got our seats in the 6th row (but called “G”) for about US$50 each, which is a great deal.

I have a very high opinion of HK Phil, and today’s performance was up to my expectations, with a couple of minor quibbles on the last piece, and I will get to those.

Dvorak’s Carnival Overture is an oft-performed piece, and there is absolutely no reason to confuse it with Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals.  Yet I managed to do so, and wondered why there was no description of the individual numbers and the animals they describe, and how they manage to squeeze in so much music in the program.  No matter, once I got myself straightened out, the short Overture became very enjoyable and lively, as its name would suggest.  A great start for the evening.

We last heard Gershwin’s Concerto in F performed by Yuja Wang, with the Michael Tislon Thomas conducting the London Symphony, in Avery Fisher Hall.  My recollection – confirmed by a review of my blog entry – was that it was not a particularly impressive performance, with one of the complaints that we couldn’t hear the piano well given where we sat.  My reaction today was completely different.  I can’t tell who was the better pianist, but the performance by Barto felt intimate, more like a piece of chamber music, with excellent give-and-take between the soloist and members of the orchestra.  Instead of straining to hear the music and trying to understand it, today I sat back and enjoyed it.

I had not heard of Barto before, and was surprised to find out he is American, born in Florida.  And he looked older than the picture in the Program Notes would suggest: he had a full head of black hair when the picture was taken; and let’s say the hair has changed a great deal.  He did seem to perform the piece with ease and aplomb, despite the many difficult passages.  He performed an encore that sounded like one of Gershwin’s jazz pieces.

Much has been said about Brahms’s first symphony and how the completion of it gave Brahms the confidence that his composition skills were good.  So it is quite amazing that it is not nearly as frequently programmed as Brahms’s other symphonies.  I don’t recall ever heard it live before.

And there is no reason why it is performed more regularly.  It is complex, but not as complex as Brahms’s later works.  At 45 or so minutes it isn’t short, but didn’t felt repetitive at all.  Per the Program Notes, Wagner made the disparaging remark that he heard the entire first movement without hearing “an idea, a melody that irresistibly fills the universe with grandeur and emotion.”  I certain thought it was easy to understand, and the one melody that I knew (the chorale-like melody) was lovely.

The Program Notes had something interesting to say about Gershwin and Brahms’s background.  Both had humble beginnings, and Brahms at a young age had to support his family by playing the piano in seedy salons.  The Notes associate this with Brahms’ being unmarried his whole life.  Perhaps a bit much.

My only complaint was one violin player was playing a bit too loud (I believe it was the concertmaster.)  And someone came in early.  Both no-nos as far as I am concerned.  The latter could be attributed to Eschenbach being a guest conductor.

There were solo and ensemble passages by various instruments (I recall the violin, horn, and oboe) and they were all done very well.  Both Anne and I thought the timpanist could be a bit more into it, though.  The conducting was energetic, with Eschenbach trying to coax out different lines.

All in all, just minor quibbles for an otherwise lovely evening of great music.  The attendance was quite good, much to my relief.

We left after dinner in Taipo, and got back at about 11:30 pm.  The trains were not as crowded as they used to be.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Metropolitan Opera – Wagner’s Tannhauser. October 19, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Dress Circle (Seat E120, $147.50).

Story.  Tannhauser abandons his love Elisabeth and lives with Venus.  He eventually decides to leave Venusberg to go back to Elisabeth.  However, his living with Venus is considered a sin that can only be forgiven by him making a pilgrimage to Rome.  When the pilgrims return, and Tannhauser is not among them, Elisabeth is broken with grief and is on the verge of dying.  Tannhauser appears, and explains that his transgression can no more be forgiven than the papal staff bearing leaves again.  Venus appears when Tannhauser summons her, but disappears when Elisabeth’s funeral procession comes down the valley.  Tannhauser also dies.  Another group of pilgrims arrives, and brings the Pope’s staff which has blossomed.

Conductor – James Levine.  Venus – Michelle DeYoung, Tannhauser – Johan Botha, Elisabeth – Eva-Maria Westbroek.

Due to our expectation of being quite busy this year, we bought only a “3-ticket” package for this season.  And we had to switch the first one, from October 27 to today, as we will be out of town later this week.  So the decision to curtail the commitment was a good one.

This was one of Wagner’s earlier works, and before he fully adopted his later writing style using leitmotifs and the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”).

Indeed this opera felt very different from Wagner’s later works (the Ring Cycle operas and Tristan and Isolde come to mind.)  A good illustration would be the many orchestral pieces (or mostly orchestral) such as the overture and ballet at the beginning.  The two combined lasted about twenty minutes, and to the uninitiated (such as me) at times sounded like Beethoven or even Verdi.  Most of my Wagner exposure has been his later style, so this was both unexpected  and welcome, although at times cognitive dissonance would come in as I had to keep reminding myself this was Wagner.

The set was first used in 1977, and is of the “realistic” kind – as much as Venusberg can be realistic, granted.  While I have no problem with that, there was again some cognitive dissonance as they have no semblance to the sets used in the Ring Cycle, Parsifal, or Tristan and Isolde.  I don’t recall this being a problem with Meistersinger though.

Levine conducted the premiere of the 1977 production, this is close to 40 years later.  Meanwhile the maestro has suffered through some health problems.  He still needed the special wheelchair, today he would be pushed in and out for the different acts; the last few times they did a bit more to “hide” this from the audience.  I don’t know whether he is continuing to recover, or his health has deteriorated recently, but today he seemed to favor the right side, a lot.  This was a rather long opera (total performance time around 3:30 hours), and he appeared quite energetic.  Certainly the sound of the orchestra is as good as I have heard it.  I do wonder how he compares with the 1977 Levine though.

When I did the ticket exchange, I paid a bit extra to upgrade to the Dress Circle.  It may just be the great singing voices (of everyone involved,) or the acoustics are that much better.  All the three principals did a marvelous job.  While the sympathetic figure is Elisabeth, Botha as Tannhauser did the most singing.  He did very well, his voice projecting clearly, oftentimes against a full orchestra, sometimes with a full chorus added in.  Both DeYoung and Westbroek fulfilled their roles well.  I did think every now and then they could swap roles and would do equally well (I don’t know if the ranges of the roles are the same.)  My one complaint would be they could use a softer voice every now and then; well, that, and they were all on the stout side.

The minstrels held a small instrument they referred to as the harp when they sang, with the harpist in the pit doing the real strumming.  So this opera is one where the harp got a lot of exposure, with many virtuoso passages; the principal Emmanuel Ceysson did a superb job.

There were many other singing roles, and several choral numbers.  Again uniformly good.  Most of the choral numbers were for men, though.

When I read the synopsis in the Program Notes, I got the impression this was going to be a poorly concocted story that wouldn’t quite hang together.  Wagner created the story by combining elements of different and even unrelated sources.  In this case a mythical realm of Venus, a story of the Pope’s staff, a contest of medieval minstrels, and Saint Elisabeth; a recipe for confusion.  However, I found the plot to be quite easy to follow, and some of the action shed light on said confusion.  For example, being in love with Venus is condemned, and thus required penance and forgiveness.  Wagner also had a clever construction where Tannhauser spat out the fact he was with Venus during the minstrel song contest.  A curious fact: the name Tannhauser was not used in the opera at all, instead he was referred to by his given name Heinrich.

Looking over what I wrote, I am surprised how positive it is.  I never know how I will react to Wagner’s work the first time I hear it.  I don’t remember any that I would take such a liking on the first hearing.  This is by no means an easy opera to perform, and much credit has to be given to Levine: whatever condition his physical health is, he certainly maintained a high level of excellence throughout the program.

Anne had to go into Flushing for a morning meeting, so she left our house a bit after 7 am.  It was close to 1 am when we got home.  Our dinner was slices of pizza.

The New YorkTimes review is generally positive on Levine’s performance, although the reviewer points out several places where things got a bit sloppy.  He also did a rundown of each singer’s performance.  His remark “singing comes first in opera” (similar to what I have said before) comes before his description of Botha as being hefty.  He spared the leading ladies any similar remarks, though.  The sad news is Levine has withdrawn from conducting Lulu, with a new production planned in large part for him.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Boston Symphony – Andris Nelsons, conductor; Lars Vogt, piano. October 10, 2015.

Symphony Hall, Boston.  Second Balcony (Section 28C, Seat D2, $66.)

“Divisions” for Orchestra (2014) by Sebastian Currier (b. 1959).
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (premiere 1803), by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 (1877), by Brahms (1833-1897).

We are visiting the Boston area for the long weekend.  There were not too many tickets left at 7 pm, when we got to Symphony Hall.  We decided to pass on the $145 prime seats, and opted for these $66 tickets instead.  Seats 1 and 2 are at the end of the center row, with the right side of the stage (cellos and basses, mostly) blocked.  We managed to shift into two vacant seats towards the center, and that made a big difference.  Symphony Hall reminds me of the great European concert halls I have been too, with great acoustics, but there are too many seats that would require a lot of leaning forward or sideways to get a good view of the stage.

Let me jump to the conclusion right away: this was a great concert.

My appreciation started with the first piece, a modern composition written to commemorate the start of the first world war.  A group of orchestras (BSO among them) commissioned ten different works for this purpose, and this is the last of the ten to be performed.

With most modern pieces, the best conclusion I can draw is “I may enjoy it more if I get to listen to it more often.”  Here my appreciation is immediate.  The composition is unmistakably modern, but it had a structure that was easy to grasp, and conveyed the message readily.  I quote from the composer: “My starting point was the rather obvious observation that we humans are a jumble of contradictory impulses: at our best so creative, insightful, and altruistic, at our worst so inexplicably short-sighted, destructive, and sadistic.”  The construction of the piece is more complicated than that, and to get how the piece actually progresses would take multiple listenings, at least in my case.  Yet it was easy to like.

The way the orchestra started the Beethoven piece really justified their reputation as an organization that plays with great precision.  With the great acoustics of the hall, the phrase “wow, this is clean” readily came to mind.  That set the tone for the entire performance.  With the exception of a few places where the piano was a bit too soft, it was a performance worthy of an engineered CD recording.  The sound was warm without being sugary, and the interpretation thoughtful without being too emotional. As with familiar pieces, I have in my mind how a great performance would be like, and this one met and often exceeded my expectations.  The three movements are Allegro con brio, Largo, and Rondo: Allegro.

Paul Lewis was the soloist already scheduled, but had to withdraw because of an “unanticipated surgical procedure.”  I had heard him a couple of times in New York, and Lars Vogt once this summer.  From what I can recall from those performances, the substitution is not a downgrade at all.  The audience rewarded the performance with a warm applause.

Brahms’s second symphony is a concert staple, and I have been quite familiar with it since my college days.  This is a symphony that’s easy to get musically, even though the Program Notes calls it “perhaps the most regularly misread of Brahms’s major works.”  The ambiguity starts with Brahms’s own descriptions of this work: to his friend Eduard Hanslick he wrote “It’ll sound so cheerful and lovely …,” but to Clara Schumann he described it as “elegiac.”  The symphony comprises of four movements: Allegro non troppo, Adagio non troppo, Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino), and Allegro con spirito.

The other “characteristic” is that even though the structure of the composition is relatively straightforward, and the different melodies are easy to get, most performances I have heard sounded muddled.  Or, not as “clean” as it should sound.  Not even the Boston Symphony managed to make it sound clean, and now I wonder if that is possible at all.  Some symphonies (Tchaikovsky Pathetique comes to mind) are meant to be wild, although I never would have put Brahms’s second in that category.  All that aside, this was an enjoyable performance.  The piece calls for many solo passages from the woodwind and brass instruments, and they all did a marvelous job.  In the description there was no mention of tuba, but interestingly one was present, giving the brass section a solid footing.  (Wikepedia reference does mention a tuba.)

Andris Nelsons is a young conductor (born 1978), this is his second year with the BSO, which had gone without a music director for a while since Levine resigned a few years ago.  I had seen him conducting at the Met a few years back, but frankly forgot how he did (and the conductor usually isn’t the focus in an opera performance anyway.)  I was impressed with how he moved the music forward.  It did seem he seldom stood straight: he leaned forward, sideways, and backwards a lot; he also crouched down a lot, but I didn’t see him jump all that much.  A “more is more” type, but gets the job well done.

Our son’s place, where we are staying, is a bit less than a mile from the Assembly T-station, Anne and I walked there to catch the subway into town.  It was a bit on the cold side (high 40s) when we walked back.  We had only time for a quick bite at a nearby Panera Bread.

Friday, October 02, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Emanuel Ax, piano. October 1, 2015.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat V105, $69.50.)

Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880) by Brahms (1833-97).
Canta-Concerto (2014) by Marc Neikrug (b. 1946).
Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major for piano and orchestra, Op. 83 (1878-81) by Brahms.

This was our first concert of the season.  After having attended three out-of-town concerts, I was ready to “go home” to more familiar surroundings.

Two of the pieces are by Brahms.  The Overture was written by the composer during his summer vacation at Bad Ischl.  The Playbill says Brahms said the piece could be called either “dramatic” or “tragic.”  Various commentators have attributed a story to the music, including Goethe’s Faust.  The composer said there was none – but evidently no one knows for sure if he was serious.

The more interesting point made in the Playbill is that “The Academic Overture” was written at about the same time, and stands in contrast to Tragic.  One would think it would be illuminating to hear the two overtures in quick succession, but not today.

The orchestra put in a superb performance.  They were precise, had great dynamics, and generally produced a wonderful sound.  I wouldn’t have used the word “tragic” to describe it; and tried as I did, I couldn’t hear any Faust in it either.

Before playing the Canta-Concerto, Gilbert and the composer came out and talked for a bit.  This was the world premiere of the composition, and it was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.  Indeed one wonders why the voice is seldom used as a “solo instrument” since a lot of soloists are asked to make their instruments sing like a voice.  The Playbill mentions one such composition from 1943, written by the Russian composer Gliere, titled “Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra.”  I thought it was bad form when Neikrug said “I can say that, since the composer is dead: it isn’t very good.” The vocal solo utilizes different sounds (proto-language) that Gilbert characterized as “gibberish,” but he qualified that by saying its like listening to an opera in Czech without subtitles, one can still tell there is emotion in the sound.

The 25-minute work is in four movements: (I) Moderato q=72, (II) Mosso q=72, (III) Adagio q=54, (IV) Vivo q=92.  The second movement is especially short.

It may be unfair to make an assessment after one hearing, and of a new genre at that.  But I must say I am tempted to use the same words to describe this piece as Neikrug used for Gliere’s piece.  It is difficult enough to follow the music, but the various sounds made by the soloist were simply too distracting for me to focus on the overall structure of the movements.  While my appreciation of contemporary music is usually at the “I can tolerate it” level, every now and then there are pieces I would like to hear again to get a better understanding.  There is no desire in this instance.  I also would take issue with Gilbert’s statement.  In the case of an opera the listener generally has some idea of the storyline and with the help of the action and scenary can associate the emotion expressed in the voice with what is happening in the story (although in my experience, often wrong.)  Here there is no story.  I do wonder how the music would come across if a regular instrument (say a flute) is used.

Sasha Cooke has a great voice that projects well.  I just wished she had done something in the more traditional repertoire – say Britten.  I heard her a couple of years back in Britten’s Spring Symphony.  To use the voice as an instrument and not take advantage of its ability to speak is such a waste.

Brahms’s second piano concerto is often called “serene and warm.”  To me those adjectives apply only when this work is compared with his first concerto.  This is especially true with how the two pieces begin: one with the roll of the timpani followed by the full orchestra, the other with a (soft) horn introduction.  Of course in the slow movement there is this lovely tune played by the cello, which Carter Brey just nailed.  (The orchestra seating was rearranged so the cello section was on the outside.)

I have always found Emanuel Ax’s playing thoughtful, and have been amazed how he can tell a story with how he puts the performance together.  He did that tonight, but the performance was a notch below his usual high standard: at times the sound was a bit muddled, and the music sometimes didn’t seem to go try to go anywhere.  But we are talking about an “A” performance instead of an “A+” one here.

It was good to see the familiar faces, and the few new ones.  In the Bass section there is a young Chinese woman listed as “replacement/extra.”  Case Scaglione, who just got promoted to Associate Conductor recently, is gone.

The most obvious change was of course the new concertmaster, Frank Huang.  We had seem him a couple of times last year when he was auditioning for the job.  He seemed to enjoy himself, and well he should.  Still moved around a bit much by Dicterow standards, perhaps the audience will get used to that.  It is noteworthy (to me at least) that he stayed during Ax’s performance.  There were no solo passages for him, so I looked up the New York Times review for last week’s performance, where the concertmaster had considerable playtime as Pauline in Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben.”  The reviewer had something good to say about him in an otherwise critical review of the program.

We stopped by Ellie’s place before going into the city via PATH and the subway.  I stepped into one of these pools from the recent rains on the sidewalk, the wet shoe felt quite uncomfortable afterwards.  It was about 11:45 pm when we got home.

[Note on October 4: Here is the New York Times review.  The reviewer had a lot of good things to say about the program.]