Sunday, January 31, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Juanjo Mena, conductor; James Ehnes, violin. January 27, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat U108, $69.50.)

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 6 in A major (1879-81, ed. L. Nowak, 1952) by Bruckner (1824-96).

The first thing one notices about the program is its length.  A 45-minute first half, and a full hour for the second half.  While it doesn’t come close to the length of most operas, it is still a program that requires considerable stamina, both of the artists and of the audience.

In reading the Playbill, I found out two things about the Beethoven violin concerto that I didn’t know before.  One is that Beethoven actually transcribed it into a piano concerto a year after the concerto’s premiere, the other is that Beethoven actually studied the violin and was an orchestral violist.

To me the most amazing part about the concerto is how a brilliant composition was achieved with mostly scales and arpeggios.  The elegantly dressed (black tie formal) Ehnes - with his erect stance, attacking the piece with great precision – would be how one would envision a performance of the concerto.  Overall it was a good experience, although there were a few intonation problems, quite inexplicable as they occurred during the relatively slow passages.  Otherwise he had no problems with the technique required, including the many fast double stop passages.  His violin (the “Marsick” Stradivarius of 1715) makes a good sound, although it didn’t carry as well as I thought most Strads would, and we were in the middle of the orchestral section.

A Bruckner Symphony asks a lot of the orchestra and the audience.  Today it was especially so since we just sat through a long violin concerto.  The roughly 1 hour long piece consists of four movements (i) Majestos (Majestic); (ii) Adagio: Sehr feierlich (very solemn); (iii) Scherzo: Nicht schnell (Not fast) – Trio: Langsam (Slow); and (iv) Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Moving, but not too fast.)  The movements are approximately 15, 20, 10 and 15 minutes in length.

My encounter with Bruckner has been limited, and this is the first time I heard this relatively obscure sixth symphony.  While it has definite Bruckner elements (think Philip Glass’s slow build up but with a much richer texture), I must say I would have a hard time identifying as Bruckner other than by a process of elimination (not Beethoven, not Brahms, not Dvorak, etc.)

The other interesting aspect of Bruckner is that his works were subject to extensive revisions, many times by others.  It is generally agreed that this symphony exists only one authentic manuscript (to quite the Program Notes.)

I still remember how impressed I was when I heard Zubin Mehta’s performance of Bruckner’s 8th.  This one did not nearly rise to that level.  While tonight’s music was enjoyable, I couldn’t quite get the story behind it.  I last listened to this symphony three years ago (also the last series by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Eschenbach) and characterized it as “very loud.”  While tonight’s doesn’t fall into that category, it is still amazing the sound one could achieve with a rather traditional ensemble – the timpani is the only percussion.

Overall I felt this was a good concert, though not an inspired one.  I do wonder if the length of the program asks too much of everyone involved, though.  We saw Mena conduct a year ago, interestingly I also considered that concerto one that didn’t quite live up to its full potential.

The New York Timesreview was unusal in that the reviewer compares this concert with a concert at Carnegie Hall by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Nezet-Sequin.  While the review about the Philharmonic was mostly positive, it pales in comparison to what the reviewer thought of Philadelphia.  Oh well …

Earlier today, I received an email announcement that Jaap van Zweden will be the orchestra’s next music director, succeeding Alan Gilbert.  Van Zweden currently leads both the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Dallas Symphony.  I wonder if he would relinquish both posts to take up this new one.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Orchestre National de France – Daniele Gatti, conductor; Alexandre Tharaud, piano. January 24, 2016.

Symphony Hall, Boston.  Orchestra (Seat CC33, $71.50).

Prelude a lapres-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy.
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K.488 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Symphony No. 5, Op. 64 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

We decided to come up to Boston for our granddaughter’s birthday after our Hong Kong trip.  I looked around and found discount tickets on Goldstar for this concert.  It would be interesting to see a new orchestra, and to visit Symphony Hall again.  After church we had lunch with the Tsai’s before Joe dropped us off at the venue.

The short Debussy piece put the concert on a good footing.  Our seats did not afford us views of the back of the orchestra, but the soloist came through nice and clear.  Program Notes on this piece keep talking about a ballet associated with the music, but I have trouble picturing what it would be like, other than a fawn jumping around on a meadow as it blows on a pan flute.

The Mozart concerto was pleasant to listen to, with a good give-and-take between the soloist and the orchestra.  As usual, I can’t tell if this is a “good” or a “great” performance.  The interesting thing is both the soloist and the conductor needed the music in front of them.  (Gatti didn’t need the score for the other two pieces.)  The three movements are Allegro, Adagio, and Allegro assai.

In my prior encounters with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth I have come away with different feelings: gloom and doom at times, a ray of home at other times.  Today’s performance is more in the latter category.  While this was competently performed, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, it wasn’t quite up to the standard of my last two, conducted by Blomstedt and Dudamel.

The programming is a bit of a head-scratcher.  Of course all three are popular pieces for the concert stage, but I can’t tell how they belong together.  And for a touring French orchestra, one might reasonably expect the program would have a heavy French tilt; well, the soloist was French.

Gatti is Italian, and seems to be on his way up (if he isn’t there already.)  His next appointment is with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.  His movements are generally economical, at times imperceptible, yet he managed to keep the musicians together.  Most of the time anyway, things got a bit wild towards the end of the Tchaikovsky piece, which may be impossible to do anyway.

Perhaps it was the snow – NJ was hit hard, Boston had about half a foot – attendance was not great (80%, maybe?)  Anne noticed that her former colleague, now CEO of a startup biotech company, is a sponsor of this Celebrity Series.

Friday, January 22, 2016

New York City Opera Renaissance – Puccini’s Tosca. January 21, 2016.

Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat A109, $85.50).

Conductor – Pacien Mazzagatti; Tosca – Latonia Moore, Cavaradossi – Raffaele Abete, Scarpia – Carlo Guelfi, Angelottiii – Christopher Job.
Musica Sacra, Kent Tritle, conductor
Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun Menaker, Artistic Director

About 10 days ago I got an email from NYCO Renaissance announcing that NYCO had come out of bankruptcy (about 3 years ago) and it would be staging Tosca later that month.  They were also offering half price tickets.  Since the start time was a bit early at 7 pm, Anne couldn’t make it.

The announcement made a big deal out of the production set and costumes would hark back to the premiere of the opera in Rome in 1900.  Indeed when the curtain first opened, the audience applauded as it was greeted by a rather elaborate set depicting the interior of a cathedral.  On closer inspection, many corners seemed to have been cut: the walls shook when people walked on them, the water colors were hastily done; nonetheless, this was not the typical austere staging that I was expecting.  The costumes were also period, although they looked more French than Italian – of course the setting was the Napoleonic era, so perhaps the French were everywhere.

The auditorium was quite small, seating around 1100 people, and to my disappointment was still sparsely occupied at 5 minutes to curtain.  When I discovered that my seat in the first row, I was tempted to get one of the many empty seats, but then decided it might be fun to be up close.  Turns out it was also in the center, I could have easily reached the conductor’s head.  I had a great view of the action on stage; the downside is I had to try hard not to make a sound.  The other thing I noticed was people were quite well dressed: many suits and ties.

To this amateur music critic, the performance was uniformly excellent.  Being close to the stage helped, and the small auditorium certain made acoustics a non-issue.

The comedic nature of the opera is often overlooked as the audience anticipates the deaths that are to come.  To their credit the artists made the audience laugh on many occasions, I chuckled when Cavaradossi, at Tosca’s insistence, dabbed dark paint on the eyes of the portrait he was working on.  One other thing of note was the execution was carried out with a single pistol, instead of the oft-employed firing squad.  Actually that would make the whole “fake scene” more believable.  Come to think of it, the Tosca we saw in Australia also used a pistol, although in that case the strange staging was the most prominent aspect.

The singing was good.  Moore had sung several roles at the Met, and she certainly had a beautiful and strong voice.  With a permanent scrawl on her face, her acting skills could use some coaching.  “Visse arte” usually starts in a wistful manner; she started out forte and ended fortissimo.  It actually worked as the Act ends with Tosca stabbing Scarpia to death.  The other principals all did a great job.  Scarpia could have been more sinister, though.

We saw a Met production a few months back, and in my opinion there isn’t that much daylight separating the two.  The only noticeable different is Tosca leapt out of a tower in full view in the Met performance.  I will look for a review later, but I would characterize this a success (if attendance isn’t a factor in the evaluation.)  I do wonder if it is wise to throw so much money into this, given the precarious financial situation the company no doubt is in.  Of course, if this doesn’t go well, then there is no future anyway.

The review in the New York Times, with its “wait-and-see” attitude, doesn’t bode well for this renaissance.  The reviewer also had a lot to say about the singers (different cast) and the conductor.  He obvious approaches opera differently than I do.

I got to Time Warner quite late, and the long lines at Whole Food Market meant I had only time for a sandwich.  Given the short intermissions, I was back in Jersey City at around 10:30 pm.

Metropolitan Opera – Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de Perles. January 20, 2016.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony (Seat B114, $147.50.)

Story.  Zurga is elected the leader of his fishing village.  His childhood friend Nadir returns and they renew their friendship.  The two had a fallout because they fell in love with the same Hindu priestess.  Leila, whose identity is hidden behind a veil, comes to the village to help calm the seas.  Nadir recognizes Leila as the priestess he used to love, and the two meet illicitly.  When the two are discovered, Zurga, not knowing Leila’s identity, first sentences them to death but then relents.  When Leila’s veil is torn off, Zurga becomes upset and decrees the two should die.  As Zurga struggles with his decision after he has calmed down, Leila comes to see him to beg for mercy, which he refuses as he is jealous of Nadir.  As Leila is led away, she gives a pearl to a young diver to return to her mother.  It turns out Leila saved Zurga as a child and gave Leila this necklace in appreciation.  As the villagers prepare to burn the couple to death, Zurga sets the village on fire and tells the villagers that they must go back to save their belongings.  He stays behind after he frees Leila and Nadir.

Conductor – Gianandrea Noseda; Zurga – Mariusz Kwiecien, Nadir – Matthew Polenzani, Leila, Diana Damrau.

I saw this opera in Australia many years ago, before my blogging days.  Every now and then I would hear “the duet” broadcast on classical stations, and wonder why I have not had a chance to see it.  This performance was the Met’s 10th performance in its entire history, and the Playbill gives various reasons why the opera is more popular than it should be.  Some attribute it to the thin story line, some to Bizet being “accused” of copying other composers (Wagner, for instance.)

First, I am glad we caught it.  We came back from Hong Kong the day before, after a 15-hour flight made more unbearable by delays due to problems in the luggage hold, and being completely packed.  Yet I stayed quite awake, and so did Anne.  That the opera is short helps – it’s about two hours, plus an intermission.  Also, the three top singers did an overall superb job. Polenzani put in a great performance, his voice projecting clearly and urgently all the time.  Kwiecien as Zurga was dependable.  The slight disappointment is Damrau didn’t do as well as thought she could.  On a few occasions she seemed unsteady.

The orchestra music was generally pleasant and supported the story well.  While the tunes may not be as catchy as those in Carmen, but there are many enjoyable solos, duets, and choral numbers.  I do think the violin passage introducing Leila in Act 1 was horribly botched.  The orchestra is on the small side.

Bizet had the opera setting in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) around 1800 (perhaps), but the producers have chosen to leave the time undefined, and the location as simply a village in the Far East.  I always scratch my head when people do that, particularly so in this case as it can be assumed very few people have seen this opera before.  If one is to be sensitive, won’t all the references to Brahma and Shiva offend some people?  One could also argue the costumes would insult an entire region, if one is so inclined.  And in Act 3 we have this specter of an old black and white TV (which turned on for a few seconds) and a laptop.

However, there is a lot to be said about the set design.  When the opera began, bubbles were projected onto a mesh screen behind which are people on harnesses masquerading as divers, to good effect.  The village, with houses and piers on stilts over a bay, looks realistic.  The small houses in the back are there probably as a perspective trick, but fool no one.  Interesting, they have divers emerging from the sea and climbing into boats.  The waves probably were undulating cloth, but the effect was quite magical.

This must be one of the longest New York Times reviews ever written.  Other a few remarks about the shortcomings of the work, he proceeds to describe the story in detail, sings praises to the production team, the solosist, the chorus, and the conductor.  Evidently Bizet wasn't sure how this story ends is satisfactory, the reviewer's response is this Met performance will remove any doubts he might have.

Turns out during on upcoming trip to Australia this opera will be staged at the Sydney Opera House.  We will probably get tickets to see how different the two companies approach this.

We had to rush into the city, I ate a burger before I met up with Anne at the Jersey City PATH station, she bought a sandwich at the venue.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. December 30, 2015.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat S106, $69.50).

The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 2 (from the Lemminkainen Suite) (1895, rev. 1897, 1900) by Sibelius (1865-1957).
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (1910-11) by Sibelius.
Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64 (1844) by Mendelssohn (1809-47).
Finlandia, Op. 26, No. 7 (1899-1900) by Sibelius.

Tonight’s attendance was very good, with only a few scattered empty seats here and there.  Joshua Bell and the Mendelssohn violin concerto probably had a lot to do with it.

Gilbert talked a bit about the program, describing how his stint as Music Director in Sweden gave him a special appreciation of Sibelius.  New York Philharmonic will be doing a lot of Sibelius this season.  Which made me wonder why they decided to pick the violin concerto of Mendelssohn over that of Sibelius.  The concert would at least be unique in the sense that I have never been to an all-Sibelius program, if memory serves.  Of course an all-Sibelius program might drive the audience to drink afterwards …

This was the third time I heard The Swan of Tuonela, all performed by New York Philharmonic.  I still remember scratching my head the first time I heard it, and appreciating it more on the second hearing.  While I didn’t remember the music, and I couldn’t picture consistently the scenes it was describing, I am sure I enjoyed it this time even more than the second time.  There was much clarity in how the solo passages (by the English horn, the cello, the violin, and others) relate to one another and to the orchestra.  To quote the Program Notes, “a spirit of resignation pervades the movement, a sense of gravity, of tender melancholy, of hushed wonder at the desolation of this frigd underworld.”  The music was sad enough, but I wouldn’t go that far. Too bad I didn’t catch the “col legno” passage, that would have been interesting.

Sibelius developed a throat tumor in 1908 which was removed after 14 operations, and he gave up alcohol and tobacco for the next seven years.  Whether he was trying to come to terms with his mortality, or felt miserable because of abstinence, his fourth symphony is described by Gilbert as “deeply pessimistic and profoundly tragic.” Add this to Sibelius’s reputation, and one would imagine this would lead the listener to great despair.  I found the music to be introspective, ruminating, and melancholic.  However, one has to look elsewhere if one wants to really experience any dark superlatives.  For that, I suggest Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique, or several of Mahler’s works.  I do wonder if this depends on how it is played.

The Symphony is easy to get, and to like.  It has the characteristic that every movement ends on a quiet note.  The four movements are (i) Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio; (ii) Allegro molto vivace; (iii) Il tempo largo; and (iv) Allegro.

In contrast, Mendelssohn’s violin concerto was a celebration of art and life through the violin.  Joshua Bell’s violin always sounded great, and today he put it to great use.  I often complained about his intonation problems; today they were minor and few.  The soloist and the orchestra just carried on a lovely conversation throughout the three movements, played without a break.  Bell played his own cadenza.

I didn’t know Finlandia started its life as music to accompany a program put out by the Finnish press as a protest to Russian crackdown of newspapers.  It was adopted from the concluding movement “Finland Awakes.”  While it is not the national anthem of the country, it seems to have the same effect on its people as Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” has on Italians.  It is just a stirring piece of music, with a nice melody in the middle, that is easy to like.  And the orchestra did such a rousing rendition that would undoubtedly make a Finn proud.

Afterwards I remarked that while the program wasn’t particularly long, it felt like two of them joined together.  An introspective first half contrasting well with an exuberant second half.  A great way to end our 2015 concert-going season.

The New York Times review critiques the program as timid, but otherwise has generally good things to say about the performance.  The reviewer also wonders why Sibelius’s violin concerto wasn’t programmed.

For the past week or so, our children and grandchildren were spending a lot of time at our house.  While we treasure get-togethers like this, the result was I didn’t have the opportunity to read up on the program notes until the day before.  We also had a somewhat circuitous way to get to Lincoln Center.  I drove a car to the East Side so our son could get back to our house.  I had a lot of time on my hands, and it was unseasonably warm at 60s, so I took a leisurely walk to Lincoln Center, enjoying some of the holiday sights along the way – Saks Fifth Avenue had an impressive light show.  Anne spent the day in Jersey City, then got to the city via PATH and MTA.  We had a simple meal at the neighborhood pizzeria before the concert.  Afterwards we took the train back to South Amboy, getting back around midnight.