Thursday, December 17, 2015

New York Philharmonic – Jane Glover, conductor. December 16, 2015.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 2 Left (Seat V13, $64.35).

Handel’s Messiah

Heidi Stober, soprano; Tim Mead, countertenor; Paul Appleby, tenor; Roderick Williams, baritone.
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller, director.
Continuo: Eric Bartlett, cello; Timothy Cobb, bass; Karin Bliznik, trumpet; Paolo Bordignon, harpsichord; Ken Tritle, organ.

We have attended several Messiah concerts before.  Since we are now staying at Jersey City, and Goldstar had tickets on sale, we thought we would take the opportunity to go.  By now I can say I am reasonably familiar with how the oratorio came to be, how it is structured, and most of the numbers.  Of course I don’t know the music enough to know what edition the performance is using; the Playbill lists the Oxford University Press edition as the one being used.

Overall it was a very enjoyable performance.  If I were honest, I must say I usually can’t keep my full concentration for the 2-plus hour performance.  Tonight I was very attentive throughout; I didn’t doze off at all, and rarely lost my concentration.  This is particularly remarkable as I felt very tired earlier in the day.  The negative comments below are just reflections on the blemishes on an otherwise great evening.

I was quickly taken with how well the choir sang.  The many sixteenth note runs were done with clarity and precision, not easy for a 60-plus ensemble.

Of the soloists, I though Williams did the best.  He was forceful where he needed to be, and clear in his delivery of the recitatives.  The countertenor part was the most disappointing.  First, I would think the part is more naturally sung by an alto.  Mead sounded unrefined and unsteady most of the time.  I first heard him in the opera “Written on Skin” this past summer, and thought his voice worked well in that context (it was the Koch Theatre, though.)  Soprano Stober’s voice carried very well, although I thought she slurred her runs noticeably, and she had this grimace on her face all the time.  Both Anne and I thought the tenor Appleby was too slow in the introductory numbers, his turned out to be a steady and dependable voice.

Bliznik was a "guest" trumpeter.  Given how great New York Philharmonic's own trumpeters are, I wonder why it was necessary.  While her sound was generally good, she was unsteady on many occasions.

From her biography, it seems Glover started off her music career more as a musicologist than a musician.  Over the years she has conducted this piece about 100 times, so it is not unexpected that she didn’t need the score.  She was quite deliberate in how the lines were to be formed, and seemed to get what she wanted from the musicians.  Unfortunately, the only “unusual” aspect of tonight’s performance was how the “like” was stressed in the phrase “all we like sheep.”  The word is not on the downbeat, and it is not the most “important” one in the phrase.  The way the choir (dutifully, no doubt) did it just sounded strange.

The New YorkTimes review was very positive.

We took the Paulus Hook ferry over to Manhattan, and had dinner at Brookfield Place before heading up to Lincoln Center.  It was a nice evening to be doing this, although I wouldn’t mind a little more nip in the air – it was around 50 degrees.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

New York Philharmonic – James Gaffigan, conductor; Jeffrey Kahane, piano. December 11, 2015.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Y103, $53.50).

Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Split for Piano and Orchestra (2015) by Andrew Norman (b. 1979).
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Merry Pranks), Op. 28 (1895) by R. Strauss (1864-194.

We got tickets to these concerts as New York Philharmonic was running a two-for-one sale.  As this was the holiday season, and the weather had been particularly warm the last few days, it wasn’t a surprise there were quite a few empty seats in the hall.  Actually given my last two Met Opera experience, I even consider the attendance good.

Of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the fourth has to be the most unfamiliar to me.  Interestingly the last time I heard it performed by NY Phil was the last time they played it, on March 9, 2012, at NJPAC of all places.  Also, the Programs Notes for the 2012 concert talked about Beethoven not getting another commission from this Count Oppersdorf, there is no mention of that in today’s playbill.  Instead there is a brief description of the structure of the music that made the performance a bit easier to follow.  There is a 5-measure melody titled the “bassoon joke” printed in the program. While I could hear it, I wasn’t sure why it would be considered humorous, it sounded more like a technique showoff line to me.

I am not particularly bothered if after a particularly great movement an audience shows its appreciation by applauding.  But after every movement?  That is getting to be annoying.  In any case, the four movements are: Adagio – Allegro vivace, Adagio, Allegro vivace, and Allegro ma non troppo.

Till Eulenspiegel was a presumably historical figure, dating back to the early 16th century, whose escapades made him a staple of German folklore (quoting the Program Notes.)  Many thought Strauss had wanted to write an opera based on this character, but ended up composing a symphonic poem instead.  Although Strauss refused to provide a program, many believe it consists of “Till racing on horseback through the market, Till the cavalier exchanging courtesies with beautiful girls, and so on to his inevitable arrest, trial, conviction, and hanging.”  The program makes some sense.  The music is easy enough to get, and I wonder why I don’t remember ever having heard it before.

Sandwiched between the two (relatively) obscure works is the premiere of Split, written by the 36-year old Andrew Norman.  On paper the piece sounded somewhat interesting.  I quote from the Program Notes: “Here three percussionists, playing an impressive variety of instruments (including such items as tin cans and flower pots), inject sounds that set off sudden changes of course on the part of the pianist or the other orchestral musicians. Sometimes these are pre-planned, sometimes not entirely, sometimes not at all.  The players may depart considerably from the orthodoxy of orchestral practice: wind players occasionally producing sounds by blowing air through the instruments without achieving the controlled vibration required to make defined pitches; in the string parts, individual players within the sections may intone notes in rapid succession, as if they were batting about a musical volleyball.  Gamesmanship plays an important role in the realization of this composition.”  The piece was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, and dedicated to Jeffrey Kahane whose playing Norman describes as witty, full of vitality, and expressive.

I got very little of that.  Most of the time the piano music sounded like a skilled pianist pounding away aimlessly at the instrument.  Kahane was quite glued to the music (on a tablet) during the performance.  I wonder if at some point he felt trapped by the music, but not the way the composer intended it.  While different members of the orchestra were used for individual solo phrases, things looked well-rehearsed – no one seeing it would call it spontaneous or volley-ball like; and the changes in course were either non-existent or too subtle for me to pick out.  I wonder when the New York Philharmonic would pick up this piece again.

The couple sitting behind us showed up after the intermission.  In explaining to folks around them why they were late (no one asked as far I could tell,) they said they had no use for Beethoven, but came specifically for Norman’s piece.  True to their word, they left before the Strauss piece was performed.  Well, at least they don’t have to spend a lot of money on tickets.

Gaffigan, also around 36, conducted with a lot of energy.  Anne thought he also showed great humor when it came to Beethoven’s scherzo and finale.  After each piece he went around acknowledging every orchestra member who had a solo line – which was a lot of people.  I wonder if he is auditioning for a job.

If one doesn’t like how I described today’s concert experience, this New York Times review is unreserved in its praise of the event, the composer, the soloist, and the conductor.

We had a quick meal at Brookfield Place.  We missed the Paulus Hook to WFC ferry by less than a minute, so took the PATH over instead.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Metropolitan Opera – Puccini’s La Boheme. December 9, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat AA35, $25).

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor – Paolo Carignani; Marcello – Levente Molnar, Rodolfo – Ramon Vargas, Colline – Christian Van Horn, Schaunard – Alexey Lavrov, Mimi – Barbara Frittoli, Musetta – Ana Maria Martinez.

Both Anne and I are quite sure we have seen this opera multiple times, but there is only one entry in this blog on this opera, although my first entry ever (in 2005) mentioned prior experience with La Boheme. We are quite sure this would be our first encounter with it at the Met.

And this was a great experience.  Our seats were towards the rear of the orchestra section, but we could hear the singers clearly, although several of them came across as a bit weak.  One of the “lesser characters” (I couldn’t tell if it was Colline or Schaunard) did exceptionally well.

The only name I recognize from the roster is Vargas.  He used to be a regular at the Met (we are talking perhaps more than 10 years ago) but now seems to appear less frequently.  While his voice was often weak, he certainly hit the notes accurately, and had great stage presence.  While Frittoli would never be mistaken for someone dying of tuberculosis, she managed to make Mimi fragile, resolved, and sympathetic as the opera progressed.  Musetta the flirt is oftentimes the show-stealer, with the well-known aria “Quando m’en vo” one of the more hummable tunes; tonight Martinez couldn’t quite pull that off, although she did quite well.  Marcello provided support, both in the singing and in the story.

Puccini often put the melody in the orchestra; Act 4 had a lot of passages like this with the voices in “supporting” roles.  Today that combination often came across as a bit chaotic and thus a disappointment.  Otherwise the orchestra was as superb as it was last week during Tosca.

The Franco Zeffirelli-designed set has been in use since 1981.  Acts 1 and 4 take place in the rooftop apartment (garret) occupied by the men.  It was functional, but I thought they could sacrifice a bit of perspective so more of the audience can see what is happening.  Act 3 was billed as “a toll-gate on the edge of Paris,” but I could find no evidence of that.  The softly falling snow on a slope, with an inn nearby, made for a beautiful sight though.  I am sure the Playbill author had Act 2 in mind when he/she called this a “spectacular production.”  Indeed the scenery is complicated: lots of houses, cafĂ© Momus, Latin Quarter, thoroughfare, and parade route are all represented here.  To me it was simply confusing.  From where we sat it usually took a while for us to find out where the principals were singing.  All that distraction may be the reason why I didn’t find Musetta as compelling as she could be.

There are several points raised in the Playbill that I resonate a lot with.  One was how many of the melodies were built incrementally with small intervals; while one could debate whether this was really the case, there is not debate that the tunes carry some interesting yet difficult-to-pinpoint characteristics.  A second point was how masters (composers and lyricists) can weave a great masterpiece from a simple story of poverty, love, and loss.  I could wax nostalgic and say everyone is special … One new discovery (or re-discovery) for me was how at the end Rodolfo and Mimi quoted the exact words from their first encounter (“Che Gelida Manina” and “Si, mi chiamano Mimi”).  It ended the same way it began, and was very effective despite the simplicity of the conversation. (I switched to Italian subtitles towards the end, and remembered the names of the two arias in Italian.)

My last encounter with the opera was in Australia, about three years ago.  While I don’t remember the specific experience, I did say it was one of the best I have been from that company.  While I must give the nod to tonight’s performance, still Opera Australia had a lot to be proud of.

Our tickets were again rush tickets.  The attendance was quite a bit better than last week’s for Tosca.  This run began in November 23, and as of today (12/11) still has 12 more performances to go.  That is quite ambitious, even for the most staged opera in Met history.

Surprisingly, the New York Times reviewer saw the production with the same cast as we did.  Her words were quite brutal: after-thought, neither ... was able to summon it, wooden efficiency.  The blow is highlighted by the praise she heaped on the secondary actors.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Metropolitan Opera - Puccini's Tosca. December 1, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat BB25, $25)

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor – Joseph Colaneri, Cavaradossi - Roberto Aronica, Tosca - Liudmyla Monastryrska, Scarpia – Marco Vratogna.

We have seen this opera twice, but not with the Met.  A check of the Met website prior to today revealed that many seats were available.  The seats assigned were towards the rear of the theater, but we moved up quite a few rows after the first act (T7).  I estimate at best a 60% occupancy, one of the lowest I have seen at the Met.

I hadn’t heard any of the headliners before, but I thought they all projected themselves very well.  The only gripe I have is everyone seemed to try to belt out their lines.  Even for a fast-paced story (the entire story basically took place in a day) there had to be some pensive and rueful moments, but one couldn’t tell from how the lines were delivered.  The well-known arias (Visse Arte, E Lucevan la stella, for instance) were all beautifully done.  I thought Monastryska had a good voice, but she could bone up on her Italian a bit. In the third act Conner Tsui sang as the shepherd.

The orchestra was superb.  Today it was more than simple background, it was an integral part of the show.

In my prior encounters with the opera, Scarpia came across as someone everybody loved to hate.  Somehow today Vratogna couldn’t generate the same level of disgust.  I still remember how powerful and ominous the Te Deum felt at the New York City Opera performance – with Scarpia scheming against sacred music in the background.

The set dates back only a few years, and is of the “realistic” type.  For some reason there was a lot of hammering on stage between acts.  In the two prior shows I saw, and also in television, Tosca commits suicide by jumping off stage.  Here she jumped from a tower in plain sight (probably with a safety harness), with stage lights out as her legs left the building.

Anne and I will be spending a lot of time in Jersey City, an easy commute into New York.  We hope to take advantage of this while we are here.