Sunday, November 29, 2015

New Jersey Symphony – Eric Wyrick, leader and violin soloist. November 28, 2015.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC, Newark, NJ.  Orchestra (Seat N111, $52.)

Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, “La Casa del diavolo,” Op. 12, No. 4 (G, 506) (ca. 1771) by Boccherini (1742-1805).
Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 1 (1917) by Respighi (1879-1936).
The Four Seasons for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 8 (1720s) by Vivaldi (1678-1741).

Eric Wyrick, the NJSO’s concertmaster, is called on as a soloist every now and then.  We heard him in Brahms’s double concerto about six months ago.  For this series he did double duty as both the soloist in Vivaldi’s virtuoso violin piece and the orchestra leader.

Two of the pieces are “old,’ composed about 250 and 300 years ago, respectively.  The other one pretends to be older (“ancient”), but was written by the modern(ish) composer Ottorino Respighi, who is better known for his “Fountains of Rome” and “Pines of Rome.”  Drawing on music from the 17th and 18th centuries, Respighi produced three sets of “Ancient Airs and Dances” and a suite title “The Birds.”

In this suite, the first movement (Balleto, “Il Conte Orlando”) is based on a dance-like composition from around 1600 by Simone Molinaro.  The basis of the lively second movement (Gagliarda) is attributed to Vincenzo Galilei, father of that Galilei.  The third movement (Villanella)is in a 16th century Neapolitan song form; the last (Passo mezzo e mascherada) is a combination of an Italian form related to the French Pavane and a type of song performedat a masked ball.

All this, gleaned from the Program Notes, sounds a lot more complicated than the music itself.  A listener can be forgiven to think this is really ancient music, except – perhaps – for the occasional modern touch Respighi put in for fun.

Luigi Boccherini is best known for the minuet from his String Quintet No. 1.  Embarrassingly that’s about all I knew about him.  While he was a rather prolific composer, with more than 20 symphonies, he was unfortunately a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, and his music suffered perhaps unjustified neglect as a result.  This rather short symphony has three movements (Andante sostenuto – Allegro assai; Andantino con moto; Andante sostenuto – Allegro con moto) and indeed sounded like an uncomplicated Haydn.  The last movement, quoting a Chaconne by Gluck depicting Don Juan’s descent to the underworld, gives the symphony the nickname “The House of the Devil.”  While one could see how the many descending phrases could describe a downward journey, for the modern listener it takes a lot more to conjure up images of the underworld.

Both pieces had a reduced but still considerable sized orchestra (e.g, eight first violins, three double basses.)  They did well without the help of a conductor, although the large size sometimes made precision a bit of a challenge.  While the sound was good given our rather good seats, there wasn’t a wide range of dynamics in the rendition.

Antonio Vivaldi was a well-known violinist.  He was also a prolific composer: about 500 concertos survive.  He wrote a cycle of 12 concertos titled “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention,” the first four of which comprise The Four Seasons.  Each of the concertos had a sonnet at the beginning, with each sonnet in three sections neatly corresponding to the three movements.  Vivaldi is thought to be the authors of the sonnets for Four Seasons.  An early example of program music.  (The sonnets can be found on the web.)

The movements breakdown for the four concertos are as follows: Spring (E Major): Allegro, Largo, Allegro; Summer (G minor): Allegro non molto, Adagio, Presto; Autumn (F Major): Allegro, Adagio molto, Allegro; Winter (F Minor): Allegro non molto, Largo, Allegro.

A smaller ensemble was used (six first violins and one double bass).  The piece still proves quite a challenge for the violinist.  Not that it calls for a lot of fancy techniques like spiccatos or harmonics, but the fast pace, number of double stops, and arpeggios make it quite the virtuoso piece.  Generally Wyrick did well, although his intonation drifted occasionally, which was a bit unexpected.  I don’t know what violin he plays on, but this one certainly had a great tone.

I forgot what my thinking was when I decided to buy these tickets; that they were on sale probably had a lot to do with it.  In contention was also New York Philharmonic’s Rachmaninoff Festival Week 3, which I really wanted to see after having seen the first two weeks.  I decided to keep things as they were, opting for a quieter experience.  CS, who went to the NY Phil concert, described it a thunderous, which I am sure was more fire-worky (?) than the storm we heard in “Summer.”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Neeme Jarvi, conductor; Daniil Trifonov, piano. November 21, 2015.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat HH111, $64).

Program - Rachmaninoff: A Philharmonic Festival.  Week 2.
Russian Theme, Op. 11, No. 3 (1894; orch. A. Leytush).
Piano Conerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 (1926; rev. 1927/41).
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 (1895).

We had very good seats for the Thursday concert, but couldn’t make it.  There were very few seats left when we tried to do the exchange, and Anne and I ended up sitting in separate sections (she had EE101, a much better seat.)

The interesting thing about this program is all the pieces belong in the more obscure part of Rachmaninoff’s work.  Most people know of the piano concerto and the symphony.  I suspect few had heard of Op. 11, which consists of six piano duets, “a collection of straightforward pieces of limited technical challenge that range through popular musical genres,” per the Playbill.  The orchestration was done in 2011.  This is the first time the music is performed by the New York Philharmonic.

It was indeed a simple-sounding piece with the principal theme repeated multiple times.  An enjoyable five minutes, nonetheless.  It was a bit strange that the audience took a while before they started to applaud.

Rachmaninoff’s first symphony was so poorly received at its premiere that the composer stopped composing for a while, resuming only after seeking psychological help from a doctor.  The symphony itself went into obscurity, and was performed the second time 48 years later, after the composer’s death.  And this series of concerts constitute its premiere with the orchestra.

Unfortunately, I am not sure I managed to appreciate the performance any more than the first listeners did.  Among the brutal comments is this one by Cesar Cui: “If there were a conservatory in Hell, …, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly …” I would only attribute the scratching of my head to my limited knowledge of music.  There are nice moments and interesting constructions in the composition; and to be fair, the 45 minutes went by rather quickly.  While I didn’t know enough about Russian liturgical chants to hear them, I certainly got the many references to Dies Irae in the first movement.  The four movements are Grave – Allegro ma non troppo, Allegro animato, Larghetto, and Allegro con brio.

Compared to the two orchestral pieces, the piano concerto is downright popular.  It was last performed by the orchestra in 2004.  Last revised in 1941, it certainly showed a lot of maturity compared with the composer’s earlier works.  A couple of curious facts about the piece.  First, the 1941 version has 192 measures excised from the original version as it was considered too long.  At a tempo of (say) 90, 4/4 time, that is about 8 minutes, which would have made the “original” about 32 minutes, not all that long.  Second, Rachmaninoff considered the fact that the orchestra is almost never silent a fault; I am not sure why that’s a problem. The three movements are Allegro vivace, Largo, and Allegro vivace.

Compared to other times I heard Trifonov, today’s performance didn’t feel nearly as intimate.  Part of the can be attributed to the acoustics, the piano sounded weaker than usual and often couldn’t be heard above the orchestra.  I could hear the Gershwin influence mentioned in the Playbill, but not the Ravel.  He played a short encore that was more delightful than virtuoso, which is fine by me.

One thing I did notice about Rachmaninoff’s work: the movements often end abruptly.  When he was done, he was done; not the type that would put in a long coda.  Interesting, as his music tends to be on the sentimental side.

There are a few well-known conductors with the last name Jarvi, and Neeme is the father.  His conducting was economical, but produced a good sound from the orchestra.  He certainly showed a lot of stamina for a 78 year old.  Only curious fact was he didn’t walk offstage with Trifonov after the concerto.

The audience applauded after each of the symphony’s movements, and Jarvi turned around to acknowledge the crowd.  For me it’s just another reason to lose faith in this concert-going crowd.

I thought it is interesting to program the less popular compositions of Rachmaninoff, something probably won’t be done in a “regular” program with a Rachmaninoff piece.  A sophisticated listen can contrast how diverse the composer’s music can be.  Regrettably I don’t have that level of sophistication.  In any case, perhaps that’s why a Rachmaninoff Festival makes sense?

The New York Timesreview, titled “Resurrecting a Pair of Rachmaninoff’s Flops,” raves about Trifonov’s playing, but is harsh on the orchestra and the conductor, relegating them to an afterthought.

We have been staying in Jersey City, so the rides into and out of NYC were straightforward.  Dinner was again pizza on Columbus Ave.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Cristian Macelaru, conductor; Daniil Trifonov, piano. November 11, 2015.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. Orchestra (Seat W107, $69.50).

Program – Rachmaninoff (1873-1943): A Philharmonic Festival.  Week 1.
The Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Poem after Arnold Bocklin, Op.. 29 (1909).
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934).
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1900-01).

We got tickets to this and next week’s concerts, thinking Trifonov playing Rachmaninoff, so it must be great.  Indeed it is.

The Isle of Dead is inspired by Bocklin's painting of the same title.  James Keller, the annotator, stresses how the tone poem unrolls in three connected sections, with opening Lento in 5/4 meter, followed by Tranquillo in 3/4 time. The last section Largo starts in 4/4 time and eventually yielding to the earlier meters, particularly the 5/4. The sections in turn depict the sea, the island, and death itself.  With the help of a reproduction of Bocklin’s painting, a listener can easily imagine a somber trip to a mausoleum on an island.

I thought I appreciated this more than the last time I heard it.  Going over my notes, I didn’t catch the “Dies Irae” then, today I had no problem catching the many fragments in the composition.  I didn’t hear a complete phrase, though.  Also, I wonder if a more detailed description of the tone poem exists (like in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony we got in Cleveland recently.)  It would add a lot to understanding of how the music relates to the painting.

No doubt many superlatives have been used to describe Trifonov’s playing, deservedly so.  There are many things to marvel about his technique and musicality.  With the Rhapsody, what stood out was how fresh he made it sound.  Not an easy task for a composition that is basically a set of variations, and one of great familiarity. The changes in tempo, in intensity, in lightness of touch, all helped to make this war horse gallop triumphantly from the piano.  The freshness was also helped by the clear transitions from one section to the other, which I don’t recall from the two recent performances of this piece I heard.

That Trifonov is a great musician also came through in the concerto.  It is quite easy to dazzle by simply pounding out the notes, the virtuosity required will leave the audience in awe.  But tonight we had a real dialog between the soloist and the orchestra, with the piano often providing the obbligato part.  There was no doubt who the star was, though.  The three movements are Moderato, Adagio sostenuto, and Allegro scherzando.  The simple second movement was achingly beautiful, with the flute providing the melody.

If one wonders why there is no cadenza, the answer probably is – with a few exceptions - the entirely piece is a cadenza.

Trifonov played an encore cadenza that is a medley based on various well-known tunes.  I recall his doing a program of his own music in Pittsburgh (I believe,) so I wonder if this was his own work. In any case, he certainly seemed to enjoy himself a lot.  A great pianist writing music for himself, I wonder whom that reminds me of. He was still very "Linus" in his posture, although he did straighten himself up every now and then.

We saw Macelaru at the Mostly Mozart Festival this past summer.  He certainly led the Isle of the Dead with great enthusiasm and intensity, and the orchestra responded well.  For the Rachmaninoff pieces he had a great partnership with Trifonov.  I enjoyed today’s concert more than I did the M|M one.  Not sure if it is the orchestra, the program, or the soloist.

We noticed most of the principals were away: at least the concertmaster, the principal cello and viola, and the principal flute; our seats didn’t have a great view of everyone on stage. I know Frank Huang is in Houston (doing Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen,) what are other folks’ excuse?  Sheryl Maples had to do quite a few solo lines, and did very well.  I noticed that she moved around quite a bit more also.

I do wonder if three weeks of Rachmaninoff is too much: I don’t know if I can take so much exhilaration.

We were a bit rushed this afternoon, so only had a light meal before we drove up to the city.  We did buy some food from a street stand, and ate that in our car, before we headed home.  All that, we still got back by 11 pm.

[Note added 11/15. Here is the New York Times review.  For reasons unfathomable to me, he thinks there is no need for a Rachmaninoff Festival, but he did have a lot of good things to say about the concert.  The encore (which I mistakenly typed as "cadenza," since corrected) was indeed Trifonov's work, a "shamelessly flashy arrangement of Strauss's Overture to 'Die Fledermaus.'"]

Friday, November 06, 2015

Metropolitan Opera – Berg’s Lulu. November 5, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony (Seat C120, $122.50).

Story.  Lulu has many lovers, including Dr. Schon, the Painter, the Physician, Schigolch (perhaps,) Alwa (Dr. Schon’s son,) the Prince, Countess Geschwitz, an Acrobat, and a Schoolboy.  She caused havoc in all her lovers’ lives, including the deaths of the Painter (who committed suicide after finding out about her past.)  Schon, fed up with Lulu’s wandering ways, demands Lulu shoot herself with a revolver, but is killed by Lulu instead. Lulu is arrested, tried, and put in prison, where she contracts but survives cholera.  The Countess helps her escape by switching places with her.  Misfortune in the form of collapsing railroad company stock and the threat of being exposed as an escape convict turn Lulu into a prostitute.  She is killed by Jack the Ripper during her first night as a prostitute.

Conductor – Lothar Koenigs.  Lulu – Marlis Petersen; Countess Geschwitz – Susan Graham; Alwa –Daniel Brenna; The Painter, the African Prince – Paul Groves; Dr. Schon, Jack the Ripper – Johan Reuter; The Animal Tamer, the Acrobat – Martin Winkler; Schigolch – Franz Grundheber; The Wardrobe Mistress, the Schoolboy, the Page – Elizabeth DeShong; The Prince, the Manservant, the Marquis – Alan Oke.

I have conquered quite a few concerts in a jetlagged state, indeed while in Hong Kong recently we attended two concerts and one opera.  Today I met my match.  We returned from Hong Kong Tuesday, and slept quite poorly the last two nights.  I didn’t fall asleep, but there were many moments of loss of concentration.  I did okay during the last Act, but attribute that more to my messed up circadian rhythm than the drama of that Act.  Now Act 3 was completed after Berg’s death by Friedrich Cerha, and it has Jack the Ripper in it; perhaps reasons for its being more compelling?

One piece of good news greeted us when we picked up the Playbills.  Inside were slips saying today’s performance would end at 10:50 pm instead of 11:15 pm.  I don’t know how to account for the 25 minutes, but indeed the two intermissions seemed shorter than usual.

Lulu for over forty years was a two-act opera.  Alan Berg died in 1935 and his widow would not allow any modifications to the work during her lifetime.  After her death, Friedrich Cerha finished the score in 1977 based on Berg’s notes.

Shortly after we got seated, a lady dressed formally came onto the open stage and sat at a grand piano.  It was obvious, even from our balcony seats, that the piano was “fake.”  Indeed during the prolog, she would pretend to play the piano while the actual pianist would pound away in the pit.  “Performer” (the title in the roster) Joanna Dudley would remain on stage the entire opera, and in addition to “playing” the piano, she would strike different poses next to, on top of, or inside the piano.  Listed as a soprano on the Met website, she did no singing at all.  Another performer, Andrea Fabi, had a lesser role as a butler.

The set reminds me of the one used in Shostakovich’s The Nose, which was done by the same designer. A lot of boards, newspaper clippings and video projections, and subtitles projected onto the stage are things that come to mind.  Although the basic set is the same, these additions made the backgrounds look quite different for the different scenes.  The intent was to support the drama on stage, but in my jetlagged state I couldn’t decide how effective it was.  In plays Lulu is often performed naked, here (for practical reasons and – no doubt – modesty) pieces of paper with breasts (and other body parts) drawn on them were pasted on Lulu’s dress to depict nudity.  There is also use of pastel colors for the costumes.  Depending on one’s perspective, one can call this trite or effective.  And what’s up with these huge gloves?

Berg was Schoenberg’s contemporary, and adopted the same twelve-tone scale.  With the help of subtitles, the singing sometimes sounded like dialog, and there were certainly no tunes one would walk away with humming.  Indeed Anne and I both wondered how the singers managed to remember the tunes, and how does one tell if someone is off pitch?

With all that caveat, the singing (or dialog) was generally good, adding to the drama.  It turns out I had heard Marlis Petersen before, as Ophelie in Hamlet.  There I had this to say about her singing: “her voice carried well, even during the softer passages.”  Even though the comment is not that specific, I won’t characterize today’s performance as such.  Interestingly, our seats for that opera were in the Dress Circle section (good thing I blog,) so it may well be the acoustics at the different seats.

I frankly got a bit loss with the many paramours of Lulu, but it wasn’t difficult to follow the story of a woman who was either manipulative or couldn’t find what she wanted eventually devolving to becoming a prostitute.  The Playbill contains quite a bit of this-and-that discussion on the philosophical and moral significance of the story.  But was Jack the Ripper really necessary?

Levine was the originally programmed conductor of this series, but his declining health forced him to adopt a less intense performance schedule, and he picked Tannhauser over Lulu.  In his place was Lothar Koenigs.  It probably wouldn’t have made any difference to me, but I had no complaints about how the music came together tonight.  I keep wondering why the Met uses so many international artists, do schools like Julliard, Curtis, and New England Conservatory not train enough qualified musicians?

The applause was quite warm.  Anne thought a gentleman sitting next to us was in tears.  At curtain call the production team members also came out, this being the premiere of a new production.

Curtain Call

In the Playbill there is an interview with the Director William Kentridge in which he had this to say about the score: “There’s no doubt that the fourth time you listen to it, it makes much more sense than the first time; and the eighth time you hear it, every note feels lyrical and appropriate and necessary.” Umm … I don’t even think they will have eight performances this season.  Considering my inability to concentrate, I heard it only half a time.

We had not seen Ellie and Reid for a while, so we stopped by Jersey City before heading into the city.  Was Reid happy to see us!

Here is the NewYork Times review.  The reviewer fills in many details that I didn’t get in my sleep-deprived state.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Taiwan Philharmonic – Shao-Chia Lu, conductor; Chun-Chieh Yen, piano. November 1, 2015.

H.K. Cultural Centre Concert Hall.  Stalls 1 (Seat J41, HK$340.)

Flying Towards the Horizon by Ming-Hsiu Yen (b. 1980.)
Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 25, G minor by Mendelssohn (1809-1847).
Symphony No. 2, Op. 73, D major by Brahms (1833-1897).

This was the third concert we attended in eight days, and I must admit I was a little worn out, especially since our visit to Hong Kong has turned out to be a bit busier than I expected, even though some of the events have been social functions.

Nonetheless, I saw this orchestra in Taiwan about a year ago, and was generally happy with it.  And I thought it would be an interesting contrast to the first concert I saw during the trip: one by Hong Kong Philharmonic.  It turns out the Hong Kong Philharmonic performed Brahms’s first symphony, and this afternoon we would hear the second one.

It is unfortunate that the first thing I noticed about the concert was the large number of empty seats in the auditorium.  I would guess there were fewer than a thousand in the audience, in a hall that seats about 2000.  It is a real pity that either folks in Hong Kong are not that much into classical music, or that the promoters did a terrible job of marketing.

Yen (顔名秀)  is a young composer teaching at the Taipei University of the Arts, and this work was commissioned in celebration of the school’s 30th anniversary.  Per the Program, “the inspiration came from observing the swallows that stayed in Taipei’s Guandu area during spring and summer in 2012.”  So the music describes how the swallows raise their young, including the death of one of them.  When I think of swallows, I tend to think of small, elegant birds flitting about, chirping gently.  The music started quietly enough, but eventually climaxed to such an extent that one would think the whole building where the swallows built their nests collapsed, with the baby birds screaming (and I wonder how they could scream so loudly.)  The piece lasted a bit less than 15 minutes, but I quite enjoyed it, even though I couldn’t quite correlate it with what I thought swallows would sound like.

Mendelssohn was all of 22 when he wrote his first piano concerto.  The relative short piece (about 25 minutes) is full of energy.  The three movements (Molto allegro con fuoco, Andante, and Presto – Molto allegro e vivace) are performed without a pause.  Certainly Yen was up for the technical demands; indeed he looked relaxed during even the more challenging passages.  The balance with the (reduced) orchestra was excellent, and the cooperation between the soloist and the ensemble was evident.  The one complaint I have is many passages sounded muddled; we sat in similar seats a week ago and the piano sounded nice and crisp.

I am not very familiar with this piece, and am glad to have a chance to hear it.  For encore Yen (嚴俊傑) played a piece based on the Wedding March from Lohengrin.  (Note: the composer and the pianist’s last names are different Chinese characters; pianist Yen also teaches at a Taiwan university.)

The Brahms Symphony was very enjoyable.  There are many places – especially in the fourth movement – that could sound quite chaotic if not executed carefully.  For the most part the orchestra did an admirable job, every now and then someone (mostly in the second violin section) would jump the gun and come in a little early.  Similarly, most “naked” brass passages were gracefully rendered, except for some tentativeness here and there.

We heard this symphony in late September played by the Cleveland Symphony.  I must say I don’t think I enjoyed that performance more.  The four movements are Allegro non troppo, Adagio non troppo, Allegretto grazioso, and Allegro con spirito.

Lu (呂紹嘉) conducted with quite a bit of movement, but drew elegant lines from the orchestra.  If he, or the others, was disappointed in the audience, it didn’t show.

I, on the other hand, just wonder if anything could be done to raise the level of interest in these cultural events.