Saturday, December 31, 2016

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Nabucco. December 27, 2016.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat BB36, $25.)

Story.  See prior post.  One point I missed until now was Abigaille also converted to Judaism at the end of the opera.

Conductor – James Levine; Zaccaria – Dmitry Belosselskiy, Ismaele -Adam Diegel, Fenena – Nancy Fabiola Herrara, Abigaille – Tatianna Melnychencko, Anna – Danielle Talamantes, Nabucco – Zeljko Lucic.

The roles for Nabucco were sung both by Domingo and Lucic.  All the performances with Domingo were sold out, today’s attendance was very good also.  We did manage to get two rush tickets.  This was (at least) our fourth encounter with the opera, once in LA (around 2002), once in Rome, and at the Met in 2011.

The sets are the same.  We had a balcony seat in 2011, which offered a very different view of the stage.  The acoustics this evening, however, was simply superb.  Every principal’s singing come across clearly.

At the last Met performance I was remarking that Maria Guleghina as Abigaille had only one volume setting – loud.  Melnychenko, a Ukranian soprano in her Met debut, had a much broader emotional and volume range in comparison.  Perhaps Levine got the orchestra to quiet down during some of the softer solo passages, but they were quite exquisite.  Despite the title of the opera, Abigaille is the most complex and prominent character, so it was a nice to have a singer who was up to the task.  Given her girth (no polite way of saying it) Anne and I both worried if she would trip while going up and down the staircase, one time wearing a heavy cape.  Most of the time, however, I was just caught up in the story.

The other singers all did very well.  Talamantes as Anna, Zaccaria’s sister, made the most of the few lines she had.  I am quite sure Talamantes will take on a major role soon.  Lucic was strong most of the time, although there were a few passages he was inexplicably soft, perhaps the background he was against?

Mention must be made of the chorus, which had a lot of singing to do, starting with the opening number.  The Hebrew Slave Song (va, pensiero) was as good as it gets.  Chung Shu, who had seen an earlier performance (with Domingo), said this was repeated, this didn’t happen tonight.

Without the encore, and with only one intermission, the performance was less than three hours long, with a lot packed in.  Levine did the conducting from a wheelchair, although he seemed much more energetic, more controlled and more precise than what I remembered.  Given where we were seated, we couldn’t tell if there was a conductor in the prompter’s box.

The reviewer from New York Times was one of those that called for both Domingo’s and Levine’s retirement, yet he grudgingly agreed that “there was none of that [shame of old age] here for the triumphant Mr. Domingo and Mr. Levine.”  He still managed to put in a few digs about how Domingo is doing as a baritone.  Many of the other cast members were also different in the performance he saw.

We took the PATH and subway from Hoboken, and drove home after picking up the car from Hoboken.  It was quite late by the time we got home.  And this will be the last entry in this blog for 2016.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Monmouth Civic Chorus – Ryan James Brandau, conductor. December 18, 2016.

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ.  Orchestra (Seat M10, $35).

Joy to the World: A Christmas Suite

Concert Program

This concert was suggested by the Homs as our annual birthday “celebration,” Lorinda and I share the same birthday on the 22nd.  Their daughter – whom we have known since she was a small child – sings in the chorus.

The concert was quite well-attended.  There were about 100 choir members (per the emcee), accompanied by a 40-member orchestra.  Our seats, while giving us a good view of the stage, didn’t have the best acoustics, so the voices often sounded a bit weak, although we had no problem picking out the singing.

The program consisted of a variety of music, ranging from Bach to favorite Christmas hymns and songs.  A few poems were read accompanied by music, including several by a chorus member (Bob Kelly, who did his own reading); some of them were poignant, some humorous.  Soprano Kaura Kosar sang a couple of selections, and chorus members Gerald Metz and Kenneth Wasser also did a solo each – with Wasser singing at a microphone.  Kosar’s voice is very good.  Selections from Handel’s Messiah included the Hallelujah Chorus which concluded the first half of the program, and a Joy to the World/We Wish You a Merry Christmas medley that ended the program.  The audience clearly enjoyed the concert, giving the artists a standing ovation afterwards.

Brandau arranged a lot of the music for the program, generally to good effect.  He also wrote a two-page “Director’s Note” on the program.  One random sentence from the note: “Pausing, to listen, to sing and to enmesh ourselves in a community of musicians and listeners lets us cut through the din of our noisy recent discourse and tune in to the shared feeling flowing between us.”  Anne and I can’t decide whether it was great-wordsmithing or bad verbosity.  For the record, Brandau has an undergraduate degree from Princeton, and a doctorate from Yale.

We had tickets to NJSO’s Messiah at NJPAC that we had to give up because of conflict with choir practice.  This wasn’t a bad substitute.

After the concert we headed out to China Buffet in Hazlet to complete the day.

Friday, December 16, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor. December 14, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat CC14, $50.50).

Messiah (1741) by Handel (1685-1759).

Christina Landshamer, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Matthew Polenzani, tenor; John Reylea, bass-baritone
Concert Chorale of New York – James Bagwell, conductor
Continuo: Carter Brey, cello; Timothy Cobb, bass; Christopher Martin, trumpet; Paolo Bordignon, harpsichord; Kent Tribtle, organ.

We have tickets to the Dec 18 performance by the NJ Symphony, but won’t be able to make it because of a commitment at church, so we decided to go for this one by the NY Phil.  Actually the billings are impressive: this is the first series that I know of that Gilbert will be conducting, perhaps as a farewell gesture?  I have heard three of the four soloists before, and have enjoyed their singing.

Anne’s only “complaint” was she would have enjoyed the Westminster Symphony Choir more than the Concert Chorale that was on the stage tonight.  She really had no misgiving about what we heard tonight, though.  I am again puzzled by how the different voices seemed to be mixed up in the seating arrangement, but noticed that Gilbert tended to direct at specific sections of the group.

One possible mismatch was Polenzani sang quite a bit better than the other three soloists.  His diction was clear, volume was great, and technique (to the extent I know what it is) impeccable.  I had Reylea in several operas before, and thought he did well.  I found his singing a not quite up to expectations; actually it reminded me of this National Chorale performance where we complained about the tenor’s voice (described as a bowling ball sloshing around by our friend). This was the German soprano’s debut with the New York Philharmonic, she started a bit weak but improved as the oratorio progressed.  We have heard Cooke a couple of times before, including a performance where she sang “sounds.”  She dispatched her recitatives and arias with ease.

Gilbert did draw out a great sound from all the artists involved.  It is difficult to compare one performance with another, but I certainly would give this high marks.  He was quite animated on the podium, which is fine if Messiah is thought of as simply great music, a bit unsettling if one things of it as an act of worship.  The Playbill contains a discussion on this point.  In any case, by having the performance in a regular concert hall setting, one should not complain too much if it was performed for “diversion and amusement.”

The trumpet had a bit of workout during Part III, and Martin – the new principal – did well,  other than for couple of place he had a slight hesitation.

From the left: Reylea, Polenzai, Cooke, Landshamer, and Gilbert.

Our seats were slightly discounted, and were quite good.  The concert was quite well attended.  Most people would stand for the singing of the Hallelujah chorus; but tonight they also applauded after this and Polenzani's first aria ("Every valley shall be exalted.")

I did find a review at “New York Classical Review.”  The reviewer is positive about the performance and has more specific comments.  He did remind me the pace was rather quick as the concert was about 15 minutes shorter in our case.  I had attributed it to the edition that was performed.

Today was a gridlock alert day.  We left a bit after 4 pm and got to the Westside at about 5:30 pm, without encountering too many tie-ups.  And we got to park on Columbus close to 66th Street!  Dinner was at the Szechuan Restaurant on 72nd.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Metropolitan Opera – Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. December 7, 2016.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat DD23, $25.)

Story.  See prior post.

Conductor – Marco Armiliato; Chevalier des Grieux – Marcelo Alvarez, Lescaut – Christopher Maltman, Geronte di Ravoir – Brindley Sherratt, Manon Lescaut – Kristine Opolais.

We again took advantage of the Rush Ticket program and got these tickets for the performance.  We saw this same opera during the last season (February 2016), the roles of Manon and Geronte were taken by the same artists.  What I intend to do below is just to record some additional observations.

I had only a vague idea of the sets used in the opera (I think I confused them with what I saw in Manon) but they came back to me as the opera unfolded.  My recollection of the February performance isn’t much beyond what I recorded in the blog entry, but I am quite sure at the end of Act 2 Manon wasn’t as indecisive in picking out what jewelry she wanted to take with her.  Tonight it didn’t feel at all comedic, as I did last time (and calling it incongruent with the rest of the story.)  The other difference was I wondered why there was a need for so many Nazis; tonight their presence was minimal.  I do wonder if things indeed were different, or it was simply my perception.

My impression of how Opolais did as Manon is the same: good, but not great.  However, I thought both des Grieux and Lescaut did very well.

There were quite a few empty seats, quite a few people moved after the first intermission.  We decided to move also (and took seats Z7 and 9) after the second intermission.  At regular pricing these are more expensive seats ($140 vs $95), but I actually found the acoustics weaker.  I wonder if it was the singers getting tired or the actual locations.

A blurry curtain call.  From left: Sherratt (as Geronte), Alvarez (des Grieux), Armiliato, Opolais (Manon), and Maltman (Lescaut)

One major change this year in the Met production was Anna Netrebko singing the title role for several of the performances.  We didn’t get to see that.  The New York Times review this season has a rather long discussion on the social significance of the story.  A bit too deep for me.  I do share her curiosity of what the setting of the opera is returned to the 18th century.

[Added after initial post.  A couple more points.  One is the scene where des Grieux and Manon first meet is very similar to how Mimi and Rodolfo meet in La Boheme, down to "mi chiamo Manon Lescaut/Mimi."  This opera was written before La Boheme.  The Playbill also talks about how Puccini drew from both the French opera and Wagner traditions, with the result having a "French accent" (my phrase.)  That may be true, but wouldn't that be even more serious with his later works such as La Boheme and La Traviata?  Or did Puccini abandon the idea after this try?]

Anne went to visit Ellie in the afternoon and parked her car in Hoboken.  PATH trains run every 30 minutes late at night, so it was after 1 am when we got back.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

New Jersey Symphony – Hans Graf, conductor; Inon Barnatan, piano. November 27, 2016.

State Theatre, New Brunswick, NJ.  Balcony (Seat G119, $37).

The Bartered Bride Overture (1863-64) by Smetana (1824-1884).
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 (1785) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61 (1845-46) by Schumann (1810-1856).

This is a program that contains two popular pieces, and one that is not heard often.

Since I had some free time on my hands on Saturday, I got to look at the YouTube videos together with the music as a preparation for this concert.

The Bartered Bride was composed by Bedrich Smetana partly because of criticism that till then there was not much music with a Czech character.  There is of course a story behind this comic opera, but the overture works very well by itself.  The many hummable tunes in the 7-minute piece can be passed off as Czech melodies, but are not actual folk tunes.  (I got this from the online notes at the NJ Symphony website.)

I was surprised at how fast the music goes in the YouTube video I looked at, and wondered how the NJSO would handle it, especially with a guest conductor.  Turns out I needn’t worry, the orchestra did very well on the precision front.  One of those days I won’t need to sit on the edge of my seat.

Today’s piano concerto must be one of the more familiar Mozart concertos, due mainly to the lovely second movement (Madigan’s theme).  The movement is quite simple, but could be heart-breaking in the hands of the right musicians.  The downside is many have a mental picture of how this should be played, and would be disappointed if it isn’t performed that particular way.

Alas, today’s performance falls into the second category.  The overall effect was more disjoint than the “crisp and precise” I like.  And the second movement was particularly disappointing.  For the first movement Barnatan played a cadenza he composed, perhaps it showcased his composition and virtuosic skills, my overall reaction is a “why bother.”  The three movements are Allegro maestoso, Andante, and Allegro vivace assai.

Hans Graf and Inon Barnatan after the Mozart concerto.

In my preparation for the concert I also listened to the Schumann symphony.  When the orchestra started playing, I was very disappointed at how little of the music I remembered, even those passages that presented particular challenges (e.g., alternating between triple and double time.) And even the number of movements wasn’t what I remembered: four instead of five.  And why didn’t they refer to this as the “Rhenish” in the program?  Eventually I found out both to my relief and dismay that what I prepared was Symphony No. 3 instead of this one.

After I settled down and began to listen to the music, I found it to be easier to grasp than No. 3, and it was quite enjoyable.  Under the precise baton of Graf, the orchestra played with great dynamics and sound.  The movements are (i) Sostenuto assai- Allegro ma non troppo; (ii) Scherzo: Allegro vivace; (iii) Adagio espressivo; and (iv) Allegro molto vivace.

The relatively short program totaled about 70 minutes of music.  Attendance in the balcony section was quite poor.  Surprisingly the ushers didn’t let people in the rear take an empty seat in the front.  The entire row in front of us was empty.  CS cane with us and bought a ticket for $20 at the door; he said his seat in the last row wasn’t that bad.

On our way dropping off CS at his house, we stopped by this small Chinese restaurant in Marlboro for an early dinner.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Ivan Fischer, conductor; Nikolaj Znaider, violin. November 23, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat X104, $62.50).

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 (1889) by Dvorak (1841-1904).

The two pieces on this program are popular pieces in the concert repertoire.  Ivan Fischer is well-known for founding the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and we had heard Znaider once before.

It is close to obligatory for me to say we heard this multiple times on a record with Oistrakh as the soloist in the 70s.  On reason was our limited collection of records; also, that it was a great recording helped.  I am sure my memory of the exact performance has faded, yet there is a way I like how this is played.

One characteristic I looked for is structure in this concerto which weaves beautifully together many scales and arpeggios.  Znaider violated this on many occasions, but in refreshing ways.  The sound of his violin was brilliant, for a long time I thought it was a Strad (it is a Guarnerius.)  I had heard Znaider perform once before, in 2007, and made the same remark about the instrument.  I was seated in the First Tier Rear Box section then, so the sound wasn’t an artifact of the location.

Znaider did well overall, handling the difficult piece with ease.  However, there were moments that he probably lost his concentration, resulting in slight intonation problems.  It is interesting to contrast how Znaider did compared to James Ehnes, who performed the same piece at the beginning of the year.  Ehnes would be more along the line of Oistrakh that I remember.

Znaider and Fischer after performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto.

I have heard Dvorak’s Eighth several times before, and what jumps to mind is the results seemed to be hit or miss – sometimes enjoyable, sometimes not so much.  Today’s is definitely in the “hit” category, so much so that I wondered how anyone could botch it.  Incidentally, one of the prior enjoyable performances was by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, again conducted by Fischer.  And there were two occasions with mediocre results with the New York Philharmonic, so the conductor matters.

The orchestra seating was rearranged, the most obvious changes were the use of risers, and the basses were at the top.

We sat next to a person who also keeps a blog.  We had a good chat during intermission.  He told me he goes to about 300 concerts a year, which is quite remarkable.

We again bought tickets to this concert at a discount.  The auditorium was quite full, which was a good sign.

We stopped by Hoboken, parked our car in Ellie’s garage, and then took public transportation.  Dinner was at Pret-a-Manger near Penn Station.  We drove back home after collecting our car.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Jaap van Zweden, conductor; Cynthia Phelps, violin. November 18, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra Center (Seat BB110, $50.50).

Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin (1848) by Wagner (1813-83).
Unearth, Release (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra) (2016) by Adolphe (b. 1988).
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877/1878) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).

There are two major reasons to attend this concert: van Zweden is conducting, and a viola concerto written by a young musician.  When we did the subscription during the summer, we avoided the weeks around Thanksgiving; so when discounted tickets became available, and we were sure we would be in town, we bought tickets to this event.

I have yet to see the opera Lohengrin, and know very little about it.  Evidently he is the son of Parsifal and the plot revolves around his defending the honor of Elsa, wrongly accused of murder.  Premiered in 1850 (with Liszt conducting), it predates Parsifal by several years.  The Program Notes talks glowingly of the opera, calling it “may be the most sheerly gorgeous of Wagner’s operas,” and proceeds to describe the structure of the introduction.  All I can say is this 8-minute piece is quite complicated and sounds nice.

Julia Adolphe is not quite 30 years old, so to have a full symphonic work performed at Lincoln Center is no small feat by any standard.  She graduated from Cornell (with Robert Stucky among her teachers) and is now going for her doctorate at USC.  I still don’t understand why there is a need for titles in these modern works, but at least this one is relatively straightforward.  The three movements of this 20-minute work are: I. Captive Voices; II. Surface Tension; and III. Embracing Mist; I don’t know how they mesh with “Unearth, Release.”  Adolphe has the following description of her composition: The work reveals a transformation from sinking to swimming to floating, from drowning in uncertainty toward embracing ambiguity.

I heard Phelps – the Philharmonic’s Principal Viola – performed as a soloist once, and all I remember was I had trouble picking up the soloist’s lines.  It worked much better today, no doubt due to the use of a smaller orchestra (still sizable) and having the orchestra stay silent or quiet when the solo viola is playing.  I don’t know what to expect of a viola concerto, this one definitely is less of a show-off than a highlight of the characteristics of the instrument.  While the music didn’t have me scratching my head, I didn’t quite get what it was trying to say either.  In any case, I can’t picture how “drowning in uncertainty” would sound differently from “embracing ambiguity.”

Tchaikovsky’s symphonies seem to be back in vogue the last several years; which is fine with me as I enjoy his romanticism.  While Symphony No. 4 is not as popular as his 5th or the Pathetique, it bears all the characteristics of a Tchaikovsky composition.  Per my blog, I heard this a few years ago performed by the Philharmonic (Gilbert conducting) and at the end of last season by New Jersey Symphony (Zhang conducting).  Today I draw the same conclusion: NJSO still has a ways to go.  For instance, the last movement is marked “allegro con fuoco,” and most orchestras take it as quickly as they are able.  With all the sixteenth notes, it takes a great orchestra to do it with precision.  NJSO can (per my notes,) but certainly didn’t garner as much excitement as today’s performance.

Van Zweden seemed to be able to extract a great deal from the orchestra, which bodes well for his tenure with the organization (he is director-designate for next season, and director after that.)

Julia Adolphe, Cynthia Phelps, and Jaap van Zweden after the performance of Adophe's "Unearth, Release."

The New YorkTimes review contains a detailed account of the Adolphe piece.  It also describes the Lohengrin piece as “a radiant account.”  The reviewer is not as complimentary with the Tchaikovsky though, calling the last movement “more frenzied than festive.”

We stayed at Ellie’s new place in Hoboken last night, and took public transportation in for this 2 pm concert (per New York Times, for people afraid of the dark.)  We had lunch at a Korean restaurant close to the Penn Station.  We had dinner with Ellie and family before returning to South Amboy.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Metropolitan Opera – Janacek’s Jenufa. November 9, 2016.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat BB32, $25).

Story.  Jenufa is in love with Steva and is pregnant with his child.  Steva’s half brother Laca also loves Jenufa, who slashes her face.  Jenufa’s stepmother Kostelnicka hides Jenufa until the boy is born.  Believing the baby will lead a difficult life and bring shame to the family, XXX kills the baby.  Steva rejects Jenufa because of her disfigurement, but Laca still wants to marry her.  At the wedding the frozen body of the baby is found.  Thinking that Jenufa is the murderer, the villagers want to stone her to death.  Kostelnicka steps in to confess and is led away.  Jenufa wants to cancel the wedding but Laca reaffirms his love.

Conductor – David Robertson.  Jenufa – Oksana Dyka, Kostelnicka – Karita Mattila, Grandmother Buryja – Hanna Schwarz, Laca – Daniel Brenna, Steva – Joseph Kaiser.

The story of the opera is based on a play.  For whatever reason, Janacek cut out enough parts of the story, and the result a plot where the relationships among the characters are difficult to understand.  The Program Notes describes some of the missing links, and that helped considerably. But I can’t imagine what it was for those who didn’t get to read the Notes in advance.  As it was I got lost quite often.

Perhaps because of that, I couldn’t get fully engaged with the overall plot of the opera.  On the other hand, there were many emotion-filled moments in this play about ordinary people (putting aside the part about drowning the baby, and Kostelnicka means some kind of church official.)  These were undoubtedly helped by the great singing of all the major characters.  I saw Dyka as Yaroslavna in Borodin’s Prince Igor in March, 2014.  Tonight she sang with the same strong voice, but there was more emotion to her than my last encounter (per my blog entry, anyway.)  Mattila as Kostelnicka had a lot of singing to do also, and she did very well.  Indeed, she had a long soliloquy at the beginning of Act II which she pulled off engagingly.  As I type this three days later, I felt she conveyed her lines better than Dyka hers.  This was last staged at the Met about 10 years ago, and Mattila sang the role of Jenufa.

I wrote recently that Bartok and Kodaly were the first ethnomusicologists.  To their ranks one must add Janacek.  Although the opera sounded contemporary, there were enough melodies in it to give it strong folk favor (evidently Czech in this case, but I certainly can’t place it.)  The orchestra did its part well.  There were a couple of passages sung by Jenufa that were accompanied by excellent violin and viola solos.  The chorus didn’t do much singing, except at the beginning and the end.

The set is a carryover from what was used 10 years ago.  The foreground depicts the inside of a house with two walls converging into an opening.  For Act 1 the background is a wheat (or corn) field; for Act 2 the walls closed on each other to denote the house where Jenufa hid during her pregnancy, but opened up towards the end to show snow falling, there is also a large boulder inside the room, perhaps for symbolism; for Act 3 the background becomes the village.  The dresses tend to be basic colors – black and gray mostly.  Simple, but adequate.

Curtain Call with David Robertson taking a bow.

While I was assigned seat BB32, the entire row in front of me was empty, so I saw the opera seated in AA2 (one price level up.)  It had a great view of the stage, and the acoustics was good.  Only downside was I could see only the conductor and the tip of the harp.  Robertson by the way kept great control throughout, and led with precision a well-executed performance.

The New YorkTimes review raves about Mattila, but isn’t as kind towards Dyka, calling her singing “acidic” and presence “awkward.”  There was barely any mention of Robertson or the orchestra.  My puzzlement is why was she barefeet for two of the three acts?  Everyone else seemed to be able to afford shoes.

The opera is definitely worth seeing again.

I took the train up and had pizza for dinner around 70th Street.  The opera ended at around 11:15 pm, so I couldn't make the 11:18 pm train back to South Amboy.  The 12:05 train was delayed because of work on the tracks, so it was after 1:30 am that I got home.

Monday, November 07, 2016

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Xian Zhang, conductor; Pedja Muzijevic, piano; Eric Wyrick, violin; Jonathan Spitz, cello. November 5, 2016.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC.  Grand Tier (Seat E7, $20).

Adagio from Piano Trio No. 40 in F-sharp Minor, Hob. XV:26 (1794 or 1795) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56 (1804) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 102 in B-flat Major, Hob. I: 102 (1794) by Haydn.
Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59 (1910) by Strauss (1864-1949).

I learned something new!  I found out “Hob” refers to the cataloging of Haydn’s compositions by Anthony van Hoboken who designed each genre by a roman numeral.  Thus I refers to the 106 symphonies (numbered to 104), and XV Trios for Piano, Violin or Flute and Cello.

The other interesting fact is the theme from the adagio movement of the Trio was reused by Haydn in Symphony No. 102.  The Program Notes describes the trio as a piece that Haydn would play with his mistress (I wonder who played the cello), and it was meant to be a surprise for her when the Symphony was first performed, as the Trio had not been published yet.

I bought the tickets on sale, and figured the Grand Tier should provide good acoustics.  The view of the stage was great, but the acoustics was poor, probably because the seats were underneath Tier 1.  The piano came through reasonably okay, but the two strings sounded very weak.

It got a bit better with the Triple Concerto, but I still had to strain to hear the cello and the violin.

I am reasonably familiar with this work of Beethoven, and heard it as Glenn Dicterow’s farewell concert when he retired as New York Phil’s concertmaster.  I have listened to it on my iPod quite a few times – Oistrakh, Richter & Rostropovich were the performers, with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.  The piece sounded simple for Beethoven.  Before the concert I read through the music while listening to the YouTube performance by Perlman, Ma, and Barenboim, who also did the conducting.  It was a lot more complicated than I thought, requiring great coordination.  With that in mind, I appreciated tonight’s performance.  While things were not perfect, especially with intonation (both strings), that they managed to put it together nicely was a great accomplishment.  Also, both string players had music in front of them, but Muzijevic did it without music.

After intermission we moved up three rows to seats that were in the open.  And the sound was much better.  For the record, I am not complaining about the seats we got for $20 each.

Symphony No. 102 is one of Haydn’s London symphonies, and consists of four movements: Largo – Vivace; Adagio; Menuet: Allegro; and Presto.  My appreciation of Haydn is somewhat like that of Mozart: I can’t really tell a great performance from a good one.  Tonight’s was at least good, of that I’m sure.  While the second movement bore some resemblance to the Adagio from the earlier Piano Trio, I couldn’t really say they were the same.

It is not entirely clear to me why a program billed as “Zhang conducts Beethoven & Haydn” would include a piece by Strauss, but that was how the program concluded.

We have seen Der Rosenkavalier once at the Met, and has heard several performance sof the Suite, with Rodzinski as the likely arranger.  The Program Notes contains a good description of the parts that make up the 22-minute piece.

This concert was preceded by a reception and followed by a dinner, serving as a welcoming party for NJSO’s new conductor.  There were quite a few people at the reception (which cost a couple of hundred dollars) and many tables were set up for the dinner.

Reception at the foyer before the concert began.

I must say I don’t understand the programming for tonight.  Not so much how it hangs together musically (and it does to a great extent), but why a somewhat tepid program for such a public event.  While the pieces are enjoyable, I am sure the overall concert will be forgotten in most people’s minds.  Again, I hope things will improve.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Metropolitan Opera – Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. November 2, 2016.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. Balcony (Seat C109, $110.50).

Story.  This is a retelling of the well-known William Tell story with a romantic twist thrown in.  The Swiss are rebelling against their Austrian occupiers (Habsburgs).  Leuthold, a Swiss, kills one of the Austrians and is pursued by Gesler’s troops.  William Tell hides him by taking him across Lake Lucerne.  When Metcthal refuses to give up their whereabouts, Rodolphe has him arrested and orders the men to raze the village.  In the town of Altdorf, Gesler forces the Swiss to commemorate the 100-year occupation by paying homage to his hat raised on a pole and dancing till they collapse.  When Tell refuses to do so, Gesler threatens to kill both him and his son Jemmy unless Tell shoots an apple off Jemmy’s head, despite Tell kneeling down before him.  Tell successfully does that, and when asked why there is a second arrow, he says it is meant for Gesler if he misses the apple.  Gesler has him arrested. Jemmy is provided safe haven by Gesler’s sister Mathilde and subsequently reunited with his mother Hedwige.  A storm hits as Tell is being transported across Lake Lucerne, so his shackles are removed for him to steer the ship.  As the boat nears shore, he leaps off and is met by the rebels who are now properly armed.  Jemmy hands Tell his crossbow which he then uses to kill Gesler.  The Austrians are defeated and Altdorf is liberated.

The romantic twist involves Metcthal’s son Arnold and Gesler’s sister Mathilde.  Arnold first joins the Austrian, but decides to switch sides after he finds out about Metcthal’s death.  Mathilde decides to join the Austrians because of her brother’s cruelty towards the Swiss.  The two thus find themselves on the same side at the end of the opera.

Conductor – Fabio Luisi.  Guillaume Tell – Gerald Finley; Hedwige, his wife – Maria Zifchak; Jemmy, their son – Janai Brugger; Melcthal – Kwanghul Youn; Arnold – John Osborn; Amthilde – Marina Rebeka; Gesler – John Relyea.

This was part of the series we bought for this season, and I didn’t pay much attention to the opera until the day before.  All I knew were the famous overture (including the part used to introduce the Lone Ranger series) and the “fact” that William Tell shot the apple off his son’s head.  Turns out this was the last of Rossini’s operas, written when he was 37, and at over 4 ½ hours (with two intermissions) is his longest.  The opera was premiered in Paris, in French, which was also used in today’s performance.  It has not been very popular with the Met, tonight’s performance being the 36th, and the last series was in 1931.

This is a new production.  The scenery was disappointingly simple.  There were a few rocks, some large, some small, that were moved on and off stage at different times.  There is a walkway that we could see only the bottom of from our balcony seats, I wasn’t sure what it was until it was lowered in the last Act (it was a ship).  To represent the town square there were a few skeletal buildings that Anne said represented chalets.  There was a lot of mention of a lake, represented by a blue background with wavy strokes painted on it.  Also, there were a few lighted columns that I don’t get.  And the famous scene where Tell shots the apple?  The best I can tell is in a flash the apple disappears from Jemmy’s head.  A production worthy of the New York City Opera, and NYCO may rightfully consider this an insult.  I usually don’t care much about scenery, but this was a bit too amateurish.

I have no idea how the Swiss dressed around the 14th Century, but doubt very much everyone wore long skirts made of white linen (men and women).  And the Austrians all wore black.  Reminds me of a Star Wars episode where it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad.  True to the concept, Mathilde started with a dark dress but ended the opera in a white one.  Also, there was no effort in trying to make Jemmy look like a boy, although it became less of an issue as the opera progressed – William Tell could well be shooting an apple off her daughter’s head.

The Program Notes contains phrases like “visual spectacle,” “grandeur of its sets,” “historical accuracy,” “mountain scenery of Switzerland,” and “illusory effects which astonished all who saw them.”  If I had read this before the opera, my disappointment would have been profound.  As it is, I wonder if the writer ever saw this production, or if he was being sarcastic.

Operas composed during that period all have ballet scenes, both expected as part of the opera form and so the singers have a chance to rest their voices.  The one in Act III where the Swiss were forced to pay homage to Gesler stood out, for its grotesqueness.  That may be the actual intent, but 15 minutes (estimate) of it is too much.  The ballet dancers all danced well, and I am sure the choreographer could have designed a pleasant experience for the audience while getting the point across.  As it was, I am sure many in the audience were relieved when it was over.

The story was unnecessarily complicated by the many different characters.  Ruodi, Rodolphe, Walter Furst, and others all have substantial singing roles, but their presence – especially since they are dressed similarly – just made a plot that should be straightforward complex.  I did doze off a bit during the first Act.

The music did a lot to make this opera a worthwhile experience.  It started with the overture.  Yes, it is a familiar one that lends itself readily to foot-stomping; but few could do it as well as tonight’s orchestra.  As with familiar pieces, I had a preconception how it should be performed, and appreciated how Luisi did it.  The orchestra had “solo” passages every now and then, and each time reinforced how excellent it was.

The singing was uniformly great, and that would include the “secondary” characters I mentioned above.  Particularly noteworthy was that of Rebeka, as Mathilde she was splendid, making the whole thing seem effortless.  Youn as Metcthal also did well, but the character was killed early on so he only had limited lines.  Relyea as Gesler was solid.  The chorus got a great workout in this opera, and they came through splendidly – despite my missing this 12-part chorus.

I do question if the opera needs to be this long.  Certainly many sections can be tightened – the ballet, the three cantons showing up, for example.  On the cantons, it was supposed to be a masterful passage, each canton would have four parts, resulting in a twelve-part chorus at the end.  (Can’t all be different notes, or we have every note in the chromatic scale.)  I didn’t catch that, not having read the Program beforehand.

Curtain Call.

The New YorkTimes review also praised the music, the singers, and the chorus, but wasn’t so keen on the sets or the costumes.  If one wants to learn all the terms used in vocal music, there is a ton in the review.  The review also contains a video clip of Pierre Audi, in charge of production.  He gave some insight into the production design; for instance, the vertical columns depicted trees in a forest.

We were seated in the balcony, and it and family circle were reasonably full, which was a good thing.

The opera started at 6:30 pm, so we left a little after 4 pm.  On the way back there were some slight traffic jams, even though it was around midnight.

Monday, October 31, 2016

London Symphony Orchestra – Gianandrea Noseda, conductor; Yuja Wang, piano. October 29, 2016.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC, Newark, NJ.  Tier 2 (Seat D110, $28.50).

Overture to Die Meistersinger (1862) by Wagner (1813-1883).
Piano Concerto in G Major (1929-1931) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937) by Shostakovich (1906-1975).

This was our third concert in three days, although the tickets were bought at different times, and each of them have their special attraction: Xian Zhang debuting as NJSO’s music director, Frank Huang performing Bruch’s violin concerto, and – for tonight – the London Symphony and Yuja Wang.

The London Symphony is based at the Barbican Center, with Simon Rattle as its music director (designate), and Noseda one of its two principal conductors.  The largest ensemble was used in the Shostakovich Symphony, and I counted 92 musicians, plus the conductor.  Each year they perform 70 concerts in London, and another 70 worldwide; I guess they must have transportation logistics down pat.

We saw Die Meistersinger at the Met about two years ago, and am somewhat familiar with the story.  Per the Program Notes, Wagner composed the overture before he did the opera, and included the “Prize Song” in it.  The tunes sounded vaguely familiar, although honestly I wouldn’t have placed it had it not been for the Notes.  Interestingly, at the beginning the orchestra sounded in a disjoint way, similar to what we heard a couple of days ago from the New Jersey Symphony.  However, their sound quickly improved and we enjoyed the piece.  The orchestra is large.  I counted 92 musicians plus the conductor performing the Shostakovich piece.

I had heard the Ravel Concerto in G performed quite a few times before, and each time came away somewhat lost.  The piece certainly was a showcase for the soloist (Ravel couldn’t do it himself), and I would gleam this or that from the performance.  I must say this time I got the most out of it, that it was very jazzy and Gershwin-like came across clearly (particularly the first movement.)  Perhaps it was the performer: Wang certainly made the music very clear, and she could simply make this concerto sing in a way I hadn’t heard before.  Or because it was my finally getting it (or rather more of it) after many attempts.  Another possible reason is how well the orchestra worked with the soloist.  To all that I would add something I did: I looked through the score (thanks to YouTube postings) before the concert, and could make some sense of how the piece is structured.

 Yuja Wang after performing the Ravel Concerto.  Noseda sat in the back as she played her three encores.

Actually I realized a few more things from going through the music beforehand.  One was the paucity of notes for the piano.  Looked at from a distance, the score didn’t appear particularly difficult.  It is only when one looked at the details that one discovers the difficulties with the music.  Second was the rhythm was particularly challenging, at least for someone without a strong jazz background.  Third was the interplay between the piano and orchestra is also difficult to pull off.  These points made my appreciation of the performance that much more.

The Program Notes describes the second movement (Adagio assai) as the heart of the concerto.  I would like to think a lot would be missing if one simply listened to the second movement, as pleasant as it may be.  The first (Allegramente) and third (Presto) movements are what make this piece uniquely Ravel.

Perhaps to make up for the relatively short concerto (about 22 minutes), Wang played three encores in succession.  They were a piece based on various melodies from Carmen, Chopin’s Waltz (op. 64, no. 2), and a modified version of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca (K. 311).  With the possible exception of Chopin, these were pieces to show off the technical skills of a pianist.  But Wang did much better than that: her musicality came through in the Waltz, and the way she could carry on the “counterpoints” with her two hands was just amazing. 

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was written during the height of the Soviet Union’s purge of the cultural scene to make sure every piece of work glorified the revolution.  The works he had completed recently were condemned, so this was also a work to rehabilitate himself.  I don’t know Shostakovich’s music well enough to analyze how he made the changes, but agree with the Program Notes – whose ideas I paraphrased above – that “the language is simplified, … The level of dissonance is lower and the music is contained within a clear formal plan.”  I again had the chance to look at the score (only the first two movements) and was surprised at the simplicity of it all.  The actual sound, however, was a lot more complex – that is what having the entire orchestra play the same note will sometimes get you.

The London Symphony is a competent orchestra, although it didn’t sound as crisp as I expected it to.  We have seen Noseda a few times, mostly conducting operas.  He is older than I remember, but as energetic as ever.

The London Symphony Orchestra.  I missed the double basses on the right side of the stage.

It was certainly a great performance.  Incidentally, the tickets were on sale for $25 each (plus a processing fee) which was really a great bargain.  The same program was repeated in Lincoln Center, but we are glad we caught it in Newark.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor; Frank Huang, violin. October 28, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 1 (Seat T106, $61.50).

Tancszvit (Dance Suites), BB 86a (1923) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1864-67) by Bruch (1838-1920).
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1884-86) by Dvorak (1841-1904).

The headline of the concert was the Dvorak Symphony, but I suspect most people were more interested in hearing the (relatively) new concertmaster Frank Huang play the Bruch violin concerto, so let’s talk about that first.

Most violin students are very familiar with Bruch, with his violin concerto something the students learn at some point, or want to learn.  While not ostensibly so, there are enough challenging elements (glissandos, double stops, spiccatos, ricochet arpeggios, and the like) to make this a virtuoso piece.  There are also many melodies that are easy to remember.

Huang dispatched the piece with ease, looking quite effortless in the process.  As I remarked in my last blog about the New York Philharmonic, performances like this will have people asking “Glenn who?” very soon.  I do appreciate that he chose a piece like this rather than one by Szymanowski (as Dicterow did.)  At the risk of sounding snobbish, I do wonder if he could get his hands on a better violin.  Not that his didn’t sound good, but it lacked the brilliance of a Stradivarius or the fullness of a Guarnerius.

Pablo Heras-Casado applauding Frank Huang at conclusion of Bruch's violin concerto.

The three movements of the concerto are (i) Prelude: Allegro moderato; (ii) Adagio; and (iii) Finale: Allegro energico.  It turns out Bruch is mostly known just for this concerto, and he was among many composers that were competent but mostly forgotten because of A-list composers like Brahms.  There is a great deal of similarity between the opening of the third movement and that of Brahms’ violin concerto.  And the Program Notes points out Bruch’s predates Brahms’s by a good ten years.  Once I recalled Brahms’s opening, I couldn’t get it out of my head.  Another case of listening to one piece of music, and leaving humming the theme of another.

The concert began with the Dance Suite by Bartok, who together with Zoltan Kodaly were among the first ethnomusicologists.  The short (17 minutes per Program Notes) piece consists of six movements, played mostly without pause: Moderato, Allegro molto, Allegro vivace, Molto tranquillo, Comodo, and Finale: Allegro.  The Program Notes contains enough description of the “ethnicity” of each of the movements, and with the tempo markings, the music was easy enough to follow along.  I didn’t quite get why the fifth is described as “so primitive that one can only speak of a primitive peasant character here, and any classification according to nationality must be abandoned.”

There are two prior entries on Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony in this blog, both by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Gilbert and Maazel.  And again I thought I was listening to it for the first time.  Even more embarrassing is I had more insight into the piece the last two times I heard it.

To those of us who don’t get Dvorak’s Seventh, the Program Notes has a quote from Donald Francis Tovey, which I paraphrase as follows.  Everyone should appreciate the greatness of this symphony.  There are three reasons people don’t.  First is this symphony is powerfully tragic, second is a wannabe may quarrel with Dvorak on how music should be written, and third is people often associate Dvorak with his popular works and don’t bother with the more difficult ones.  I don’t think the symphony is tragic, and critiquing the piece never even crossed my mind.  So it has to be I am too lazy.

In any case, I must say the New York Phil sounded better than the New Jersey Symphony.  There is a unity to the sections that is lacking in NJSO, and the brass section certainly sounded much more confident.  Some of the fast runs still came across a bit muddled, though.

We have seen Heras-Casado before, and the orchestra responded well to him in the Bruch and Dvorak pieces.  With Bartok he was acting as a time-keeper most of the time.  He is principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, which I didn’t know was in New York!

The New York Times reviewer probably ran out of adjectives to describe how well Frank Huang played, declaring “the night, though, belonged to Mr. Huang.”  Neither he nor I see “Dvorak’s Seventh” as the headline of the concert.  There was quite a bit of coughing in between movements, I was half-expecting to see him characterizing the audience as “sickly.”  (His colleague did call the NJSO audience old and afraid of the dark!  See my previous post.)

For an 11 am concert we usually would take the train into town.  We decided to drive in today, traffic reports heard along the way were discouraging, but we made it to our usual parking garage in reasonable time.  We ate lunch bought at the food truck before we returned home.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Xian Zhang, conductor; Simon Trpceski, piano. October 27, 2016.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC, Newark, NJ.  Tier 1 (Seat B11, $52).

Program – all Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).
Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Op. 24 (1878).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor Op. 23 (1875).
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 (1888).

This was Zhang’s debut as the music director of the organization, and the all-Tchaikovsky program, while safe and traditional, was heavy weight.  It could be impressive if the pieces were performed brilliantly, but there were also quite a few musical and technical traps that could trip up the artists.

The program started with a rather familiar tune from Eugene Onegin.  Although I had seen the opera and the ballet (using music from the opera), I didn’t recall where the tune came from.  The Program Notes says it takes place during an elegant ball in the home of a wealthy Russian noble.  In any event, the short piece got the concert off to a great start.  The elegance certainly came through, this is a fine orchestra.

Music lovers are familiar with Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto.  The program notes reminded me that it was rejected by several Russian pianists as unplayable, and was thus premiered in the US (Boston.)  The three movements are Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso, Andantino semplice, and Allegro con fuoco.  Our seats in Tier 1 gave us an excellent view of the virtuosity required of the pianist, and the Macedonian pianist Trpceski came through brilliantly.  Nothing fazed him, not double octaves in both hands, not the fast passages, and he made the piano sing.  Mixed in my admiration of his technical skills was admiration of his musicality.

Simon Trpceski and Xian Zhang at conclusion of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Looking back over my blog, I had seen it only once live over the last ten-plus years, performed by Bronfman with the New York Philharmonic, in October, 2013.  While I don’t remember what the performance was like, I have no reason to think today’s performance was in any way not as good as that one.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is often called “fate” for the theme that started the 50-minute long symphony, and used numerous times in all the movements.  This is a difficult piece, and the orchestra was up to the task.  It was an overall exhilarating experience.  And one where I clearly heard a last ray of hope (“fate” played in “almost” major mode) which was quickly dashed.  As an encore, the coda of the last movement was repeated.

The rendition was not without its obvious flaws, though.  The melody that starts the slow movement is always a challenge for the principal horn.  It is a very familiar tune, and every listener expects perfection, which must put a lot of pressure on the artist.  He got all the notes right, the phrasing smooth, but I thought the overall effect was a bit off, and wished that he had given it a stronger punch.  Anne’s view was during some passages the sections were playing independently and didn’t blend together.  And we both agreed that we had heard better with the New York Philharmonic.

I was hoping to be able to say Zhang would make one forget about Lacombe, but I can’t for now.  It may be too much to ask for from a debut performance anyway.  We have tickets to several additional NJSO concerts, and I am hopeful.

Zhang was full of energy as always.  Today she even wore flat-bottom shoes.  Nonetheless, it was only when she stepped off the podium that one realized how small she is.  The orchestra seemed to respond to her well.

The New York Times review was posted a few hours ago.  After characterizing the audience as consisting of retired, old, and afraid of the dark, he described the program as “safe” and wondered where Zhang would take the orchestra.  To that last point I would say for the next several years leave the adventure to the New York Philharmonic, instead work on realizing the potential of the orchestra to be a top-notch one. He did have good things to say about how the pieces were performed.

Today’s concert began at 1:30 pm, our drive to and back from NJPAC was straightforward.  I was a bit disappointed that there were quite a few empty seats in the auditorium, perhaps the rainy day had something to do with it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Metropolitan Opera – Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. October 12, 2016.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony (Seat C107, $92.50).

Story.  The Sultan Mustafa tires of his wife and wants to get rid of her.  He asks Lindoro, someone he captured earlier, to marry her and take her away.  A shipwreck brings ashore Isabella, who is Lindoro’s lover.  Mustafa is taken with Isabella and is willing to be initiated as a Pappataci, which requires him to eat, drink, and keep silent regardless of what is happening.  While that is happening, Lindoro and Isabella sail away, and Mustafa takes Elvira back.

Conductor – James Levine.  Lindoro – Rene Barbera, Isabella – Marianna Pizzolato, Mustafa – Ildar Abdrazakov, Haly – Dwayne Croft, Taddeo – Nicola Alaimo, Elvira -Angela Mannino, Zulma – Rihab Chaieb.

This would be our first encounter with this opera.  The Met last staged this in 2004, and tonight would be the opera’s 74th appearance on the Met stage.

We got into the hall early enough to see Levine wheeled into the conductor’s position.  This season he will be conducting Nabucco and Idomeneo also.  Not the marathon pieces like Tristan or Isolde, but still a rather demanding schedule.

The last opera we saw was Simon Boccanegra, also conducted by Levine.  Levine was equally energetic with the overture, if not more.  The overture is easy to like, with many catchy melodies. I am sure it took a lot of restraint for the audience not to hum along – I know I had to try hard.  Levine maintained this level of intensity throughout.  While this opera is “only” three hours long (with a 30 minute intermission), it is still two acts at about 75 minutes each.  The days of Levine conducting the Ring may be over, but I certainly will not hesitate seeing him perform Mozart, Rossini, or Verdi.

I don’t care very much for the plot, but it serves as a great canvass for beautiful music, even though the story line is a bit contrived.  One exception I take – despite the Program Note giving it high mark – is the last number in Act I where the principals were just mouthing syllables.  That was supposed to emphasize the confusion, but I didn’t think it was necessary, and am quite sure there are other means to do so.  The orchestra performed crisply throughout, and as needed served as a great backdrop for the action on stage.

The main characters are Lindoro (tenor) and Mustafa (bass-bartone) who both put in excellent performances.  We have heard Abdrazakov sing several different roles before (Prince Igor, for example), and he was always good.  His singing today was commendable, although he was a bit weak with the lower notes.

This was our first encounter with Pizzolato.  She started a bit unsteady but improved greatly as the show progressed.

My expectations with comedies are usually modest in the acting department when it comes to comedies, so I wasn’t disappointed at how wooden the stage play was.  It did take some suspension of belief to envision Barbera and Pizzaloto as these young and attractive lovers.  Now there were some comedic and unsuspected moments.  Lindoro trying to throw flowers into a second story and having them stuck on the window sill is one, the use of a small canon to wreck the boat Isabella is on is another (and it was a loud boom.)

Both Elvira and Zulma have minor roles.  The two singers looked so much alike that I often got them confused.  The singer programmed initially as Elvira was Ying Fang.  Even though the role is minor, I am sure it was a big deal to be on the Met stage.

There were a few songs sung by the chorus – as far as I can tell, only the men sang.  Given our seats in the balcony, we could clearly see the hands of another conductor “hiding” in the prompter’s box.  What was surprising is that his (her?) hands were seen even during the singing by the ensemble of 4.  I am quite sure someone with basic musical skills know when to come in with the right pitch for most of these songs.

All said and done, we walked away satisfied with the performance.

Curtain Call.  From Left: Taddeo, Zulma, Lindoro, Isabella, Mustafa, Elvira, and Haly.

Attendance was low.  The Met seems to have trouble selling tickets for these more standard operas; Tristan and Isolde on the other hand, seems to do relatively well.

The New York Times reviewer was generally positive, and she actually found the story hilarious. Per her remark, the staging was from 1973.  It was surprising that some of the scenes (e.g., men mock-whipping women) are still acceptable today.

We got to the city early enough to have dinner at Dan, a Japanese restaurant, and coffee at Europan before the opera.  The drive home was straight forward also.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Gemma New, conductor; Stewart Goodyear, piano. October 8, 2016

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank.  Balcony Center (Seat E108, $38).

Antearoa Overture (1940) by Lilburn (1915-2001).
Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 (1868-69, rev. through 1907) by Grieg (1843-1907).
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 (1902) by Sibelius (1865-1957).

The Program Notes describes this as “a program featuring three faces of nationalism.”  The three composers hailed respectively from New Zealand, Norway, and Finland.  From the “One Minute Notes”: Douglas Lilburn’s piece is a musical portrait of the island nation’s breathtaking coastline; Grieg’s ravishing piece is rich with Norwegian melodies and rhythms; and Sibelius’s symphony pulsates with the warmth of the brief sub-arctic summer.

The word coastline evokes in me images of Mendelssohn’s Scottish pieces or Debussy’s La Mer (I know it means “sea”).  With the Maori word for New Zealand in its title, one could also expect some folk native tunes in the piece.  What I heard was a lot of Vaughan Williams’s influence – Lilburn studied in London with him, after all.  And if the piece describes the coastline, it would appear it was on a very calm day with waves gently lapping against a beach rather than a rugged coastline during a stormy night.  Nonetheless, the short piece was performed with a clarity that would rival many better known orchestras.

Grieg premiered his own piano concerto in 1869, when he was 25.  He continued to tinker with the orchestration throughout his life, the 1906-07 version was heard tonight.  The movements are: Allegro molto moderato, Adagio, and Allegro moderato molto e marcato.  This concerto, together with Liszt’s first, were among the few I really liked when I was very young (teens to early twenties.)  Melodies, virtuosity, and a story combined to make these concertos exciting to listen to.  Decades later, I still look forward to listening to them.

Goodyear looked very young (he was a classmate of our friend’s daughter, so in his 30s), and he certainly put in an exhilarating virtuoso performance.  And the melodies sounded as pleasant as ever.  However, I didn’t get the story he was trying to tell.  It was more on the order of “let’s get through these dull intervening passages to get to the next highlight.”  Nonetheless, the melodies and virtuosity made this an overall exciting performance.

In the writeup on an earlier performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony, I marveled at how complicated the tempo markings were.  The NJSO annotator made the four movements simple: Allegretto; Andante ma rubato; Vivacissimo; and Finale: Allegro moderato.  A bit over-simplified, I think, as there were significant tempo changes within the individual movements.

As with the Grieg piece, this symphony contains lots of difficult passages and pleasant folk-sounding melodies.  One of the most attractive themes appears towards the end where the full melody was teased out after many attempts.  The orchestra tackled the technical aspects well.  However, I am similarly disappointed in that in between the high points it was wandering aimlessly.  What dismayed me the most was the attempts at the final melody were all disjoint: they were played without anticipating what was to come.

Curtain Call after the Grieg Piano Concerto.

When I first started going to NJSO performances regularly I remarked that this was a Jekyll-and-Hyde orchestra, doing well under Lacombe but not so well with other conductors.  I just realized that I hadn’t been wondering about that for a while, and that speaks to the great improvements they have made.  I am not quite back to that view yet, but worry a bit if this will become the norm again.

Several friends took advantage of the sale (ticket prices could be as low as $20), but the balcony was not even 20% filled.  One would think there are more classical music listeners in this part of New Jersey.

Gemma New had been the associate conductor of NJSO for quite a few years.  I assume her departure from the organization is to make room for Zhang to pick an assistant.  I think the same thing happened to Zhang when Maazel left the New York Philharmonic.

We had dinner at church so we could listen to some of the reports on short-term missions.  Concerts in Red Bank and New Brunswick are very convenient for us.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Christopher Martin, trumpet; Lang Lang, piano. October 7, 2016.

Mysteries of the Macabre, for Trumpet and Orchestra (1974-77/1992) by Ligeti (1923-2006).
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, BB 114 (1936) by Bartok (1881-1945).

Le Grand Macabre was an opera written by Gyorgy Ligeti, based on a play by Michel de Ghelderode - which was in turn inspired by the paintings of the 16th century painter Pieter Breughel and his forebear Hieronymus Bosch.  The absurdist approach endeavors to answer the questions of “what will happen if our world ends soon” with “things would pretty much stay the same.”  While preparing for a concert performance, the coloratura soprano singing the role of Police Chief fell ill and couldn’t perform.  Since there was no understudy, the conductor Howarth – also a trumpet player – decided to have the trumpet as a fill-in.  It worked, and eventually three principal arias were arranged by Howarth into a piece for the trumpet and piano, which was further arranged into what we heard today.

The concert began with Gilbert coming out by himself, seemingly looking for the trumpeter.  At first I thought he was caught up in traffic, which was bad today.  Eventually I realized this was all part of the comedy of the piece.  And it was a comedic piece, as instruments there were crumbling newsprint, whistle, and other non-traditional percussion instruments. (Some of the other non-conventional instruments listed: police whistle, slide whistle, signal pipe, guero, and sandpaper.) Spoken words and shouts by the conductor, soloist, and orchestra members were thrown in for good measure.  There were only three violins as far as we could tell.

Martin is the new trumpet section principal in the orchestra, and he did a remarkable job with the music.  Overall, however, as gallows humor the piece sounded more humor than gallows.

Christopher Martin is the new Principal Horn of the Orchestra.

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta was commissioned by the billionaire philanthropist Paul Sacher, who also conducted its premiere by the Basel Chamber Orchestra.  Per the Playbill, the piece is a good example of the precision of Bartok’s music, and illustrates it with the principal line used in the fugue of the first movement.  Fair enough: I was able to follow how the music was developed using that particular “melody.”  Unfortunately, there were no corresponding cheat sheets for the other movements, and I was reduced to simply listening to the music, which was quite interesting.  I do wish the annotator had spent more print on the music itself.

The 31-minute duration (per Playbill) piece consists of four movements: Andante tranquillo, Allegro, Adagio, and Allegro molto.  There were two string sections, each with first and second violins, violas, cellos, and basses.  The composer also had a precise plan for how the orchestra members were to be seated.  However, Gilbert seemed to have taken some liberty with those instructions.

These two pieces are heavy duty enough that they could form the backbone of a concert program.  However, the headline for the evening was Lang Lang playing Beethoven, and is undoubtedly the reason why the concert was sold out.

Lang Lang was worth his top billing.  Beethoven’s concertos are warhorses of the concert repertoire, and the fourth is no exception.  Indeed, a search of my blog returned numerous performances, including ones by Bronfman, Watts, Ax, and Ohlsson. The adjectives I would use to describe these performances include smooth, exciting, and compelling.  Lang’s performance was all that, but I would add the word “fresh.”  I don’t necessarily think everything he did was a better choice, but it was an excellent and immensely enjoyable experience to sit through this rendition.  Lang played Beethoven’s cadenzas, and evidently there are two versions for the first one, and the longer version was used tonight.

Curtain Call after Performance of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto.

It was somewhat of a surprise to see Lang performing a piece that is not as virtuoso as what he typically did in the past.  Later this season Trifonov will be playing Mozart.  Perhaps they are out to prove they are more than just great technicians, but great musicians as well?

Here is a October 10 review in the New York Times.  Despite the minor digs at the various pieces, the reviewer was generally positive, describing Martin, Lang, and Gilbert using terms such as "impeccable musicians," "ravishing," and "excellent."

Today was a Friday, and we couldn’t make up our mind whether we should drive in or take the train.  Our decision resulted in one of the longest drives (over 2 hours).  Even though we left at around 5:15 pm, we only had time to buy a sandwich at the CafĂ©.  The good thing was we didn’t have to rush to the Penn Station afterwards, instead we bought street food and ate it at Richard Tucker Square.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Magdalena Kozena, mezzo-soprano. October 1, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat T105, $82.50).

Les Nuits d’ete (The Summer Nights), Op. 7 (1840-41; orch. 1843, 1855, 1856) by Berlioz (1803-69).
Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite, Op. 35 (1888) by Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).

When one thinks of “summer nights,” various images would come to mind.  They can range from the singing of nightingales, or a bright evening sky, or perhaps a severe thunderstorm.  It took someone like Berlioz to make this about frailty, death, cemetery, and lament.  I didn’t get to read the lyrics until the program was underway, and was quite unprepared for how dark the lyrics were after the first song (Villanelle).  The other songs in this collection are Le Spectre de la rose (The Specter of the Rose); Sur les lagunes: Lamento (On the Lagoons: Lament); Absence; Au cimetiere: Clair de lune (In the Cemetery: Moonlight); and L’ile inconnue (The Unknown Island.)

After reconciling with the fact that this was going to be a dark composition – which happened around the third song – I began to appreciate the music.  The reduced-size orchestra provided a great companion to the soloist.  While I do not know French, the projected surtitles helped my appreciation of the mood tremendously.

Kozena had a strong voice.  Every now and then it sounded a bit on the coarse side, but that just added to the grittiness of the prose.  I enjoyed her singing.

The composition was originally written for voice and piano, and song-by-song orchestrated by Berlioz, starting with Absence.  He modified the songs in other ways as well, including the transposition of two of them: “Le Spectre de la rose” by a minor third, and “Sur les lagunes” by a whole step.

“Absence” was first introduced to the New York Philharmonic by Leopold Damrosch in 1877, together with other works heard in New York for the first time.  The concert wasn’t a box office success, and Damrosch was not invited back.  Perhaps out of spite, Damrosch founded the New York Symphony in in 1878.  After 50 years, the New York Symphony, under the direction of Leopold’s son Walter, would merge with the New York Philharmonic.  Walter was also instrumental in convincing Andrew Carnegie to build Carnegie Hall.

While Scheherazade is probably known to most people, and some of the tunes in it are easily hummable, it is not programmed that frequently in live concerts.  Since I started my blog, this was only my second encounter with the piece.  The four movements are (i) Largo e maestosos – Allegro non troppo; (ii) Lento – Andantino; (iii) Andantino quasi allegretto; and (iv) Allegro molto.  Before it became unfashionable to do so, they also had descriptive titles: (i) The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship; (ii) The Story of the Kalander Prince; (iii) The Young Prince and Princess; and (iv) Festival at Baghdad, the Sea.

It was an enjoyable performance, the mood swung from serene to tempestuous, and the orchestra gave the music its all.  The Program Notes says Rimsky-Korsakov thought it would be sufficient that the listener “carries away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and fairy-tale wonders …”  That was a relatively low bar.

The soloist violin got quite a bit of workout as the protagonist, and some of the passages were quite challenging.  There were other solo passages from various members of the orchestra also.  Interestingly, only Frank Huang got the billing in the Program.

The audience applauded enthusiastically afterwards, which the orchestra and Gilbert deserved.

Curtain Call after Scheherazade.

A few observations.  First is that Gilbert went back to his baton, which looked more natural. The other was if Huang continues to perform the way he did, people would soon forget about Dicterow.  Lastly, the amount of coughing between movements was close to unbearable.  Perhaps free cough drops should be more readily available at the doors?

We stopped by Jersey City before driving into New York.  Dinner was at Columbus Empire Szechuan which we hadn’t been to for a while.