Saturday, February 27, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Juraj Valcuha, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. February 23, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat R105, $69.50).

Galantai Tankoc (Dances of Galanta) (1933) by Kodaly (1882-1967).
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major (1839-61) by Liszt (1811-86).
Vodnik (The Water Goblin), Op.107 (1896) by Dvorak (1841-1904).
La Valse (1919-20) by Ravel (1875-1937).

The headliner for this concert is definitely Bronfman and the Liszt concerto.  Afterall, the ticket says “Bronfman and Liszt.”  It was a worthwhile name for the event.

I was still a teenager, living in Hong Kong, when we first bought one of these multi-function gadgets that served both as a radio and a cassette tape player.  One of the first recordings I made off the air was Liszt’s first piano concerto, and I remember playing it over and over, and liking it more as I did so.

Structurally the two piano concertos share at least one attribute: they are both played as one uninterrupted piece.  The Program Notes says for this concerto many musicologists divide the six distinct sections into three movements: (i) allegro sostenuto assai – allegro agitato assai; (ii) allegro moderato; and (iii) allegro deciso, sempre allegro – marziale, un poco meno allegro – allegro animato, with the further remark that (ii) is often interpreted more as moderato than as allegro.

Both concertos are of short duration, with No. 2 at about 21 minutes.  Short though it may be, the pianist and the orchestra still got quite a workout, and both did that brilliantly, with a “take-no-prisoners” attitude.  This was definitely the highlight of the evening.  Bronfman did play an encore that showed his calm and melodic side.  It was good, and Anne agreed his “touch” was as good as Uchida’s.

Valcuha and Bronfman after performing Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2.

The concert began with Kodalys’s Galanta Dances.  Perhaps we do come to these concerts too often, as we also attended the last series where this was played, in June, 2013.  Naturally I had no memory of what the piece sounded like.  This time it sounded simple and pleasant.

The two pieces performed after the intermission were towards the “dark side.”  Dvorak’s “The Water Goblin” was a symphonic poem (I assume this is the same thing as a “tone poem”) based on Erben’s work.  The story is grisly: A girl is pulled into the lake by the goblin and is made his wife, she longs to go back to see her mother, the goblin lets her go but keeps their child behind, when the girl doesn’t return, the goblin kills the child and throws the body onto the cottage.

I must say the music didn’t sound as dark as the story.  Evidently Dvorak wrote some musical phrases that mirror the words of the poem, and the Program Notes cites one specific example with both the music and the words.  It is quite interesting, too bad I can’t quite pronounce the words, although the melody – which as far I could tell shows up quite late in the piece – was easy enough to catch.  The melody used very early in the piece was repeated much more often, I wish there was some description of it.

I heard Ravel’s La Valse before, in 2008, and my blog entry then applies to what I heard today.  For this performance I heard more of how repeated attempts to get to a “normal” waltz devolved into dissonance, mirroring Ravel’s disillusion.  However, “nothing short of violent, terrifying, and bitterly final” is too strong a description of what the music sounded like in the end.

Some scholar announced in 2009 that the E-B-A notes in La Valse (Mi-Si-La in French) were used by Ravel to reference his close friend Misia Sert, and they are interlinked to the notes A and E at the beginning to denote Ravel (the two vowels in his name are A and E.)  This, the scholar asserts, revealed a romantic attraction that hitherto had not been documented.  I wonder how many Ph. D.s were awarded based on discoveries of this kind.

The last (and only) time I saw Valcuha I described his conducting as a bit exaggerated.  Today I didn’t think so at all; and the orchestra sounded great.  I do wonder about how this program hangs together.  The four pieces are on the short side (not to say they are easy to perform,) and except for the despair in the second half of the program, they seem to constitute a “sampler” of classical music.  So while each piece was enjoyable on its own, I do not have much a “takeaway” for the program in its entirety.

Interestingly, the New York Times review expressed a similar sentiment on tonight’s programming, contrasting thematic programming with randomness, and titling the review with the term "a quilt of composers."  The reviewer was also critical of the “blatant sounds” made by the woodwinds and brasses; well, having listened to the Sydney Philharmonic a couple of times recently, I have a new admiration for how good the New York Philharmonic players are.

Today's orchestra leader was Michelle Kim, who did a great job.  I do wonder where Huang and Staples were; especially Huang, whom we had not seen on stage for a while.  What gives?

We didn’t have time for a proper dinner, so we had pizza before we made our way back to Jersey City.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Mitsuko Uchida, piano. February 20, 2016.

Matthews Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center.  Balcony A (Seat DD107, $60.)

Sonata, Op. 1 by BERG (1885-1935).
Four Impromptus, D. 899 by SCHUBERT (1797-1828).
Rondo in A minor, K. 511 by MOZART (1756-1791).
Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11 by SCHUMANN (1810-1856).

Chung Shu bought three tickets for this concert, for himself, Anne, and me.  However, he couldn’t make it because her daughter has a recital that evening, and he had to babysit.  Of course if we had known about Yi Heng’s recital, we wouldn’t have bought these tickets.  In any case, Agnes ended up going with us.

For one reason or another (one may well be I wasn’t paying attention,) Uchida had been absent from the area concert scene for quite a while.  But I got an email from the Cleveland Symphony that she would perform in that city, and the same program will be repeated at Carnegie Hall.  Uchida also planned to have a recital at Carnegie Hall on the 23rd (already happened as I type this), and tonight’s program would be a warm up for that event.

When I saw Chung Shu this past Sunday, he asked me what I thought of the concert.  I told him I couldn’t tell, and that was a truthful statement.  I do have my reasons.

First, the pieces were all unfamiliar to me.  Even the Rondo by Mozart isn’t the rondo most casual listeners are familiar with (that would be K. 485, the alla turca.)  Most unfamiliar ensemble music stumps me, since I am not be able to analyze the harmony, the phrasing, and the dynamics on the fly.  For an instrument such as the piano where the two hands work with/against each other, I will have even more difficulty.

As it happens, I had the classical radio station on the day after this concert, and I heard a Mozart violin sonata that I really enjoyed.  It was K. 377.  I don’t remember who the violinist was, the pianist?  Uchida.  So at least I do have opinion when it’s a genre I am familiar with.

Uchida played an encore piece.  As with the regular program, she seemed to take every single repeat, making the piece very long.  Someone applauded with a few passages to go, and Uchida was quite annoyed, her gesture towards the clapping bordered on anger.

The program notes contain a detailed description of the pieces.  It helped a lot.

Anne did say her touch was impeccable, better than many she had seen.  I was in no position to debate that.

The New YorkTimes review of her Carnegie Hall recital was published as I wrote this.  The reviewer called the event “polished and elegant,” but had some minor reservations, such as how much she connected with the audience, or how there was not enough of a contrast between whimsy and tumult.  Such a review might be high praise for a young performer, for an established pro like Uchida, known for her interpretation of these composers, it might be considered a “many thumbs down” one.

We stopped by Agnes’s house before the concert to enjoy a dinner with her and her son.  It was after 11:30 pm when we got home.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Metropolitan Opera – Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. February 18, 2016.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat K23. $25.)

Story.  On her way to the convent, Manon meets des Grieux, who falls in love with her.  Also traveling on the same train is the wealthy Geronte, who plots with Manon’s brother Lescaut to kidnay Manon.  This plot is overheard and relayed to des Grieux, who flees with Manon to Paris.  Lescaut doesn't think Manon can endure hardship for long.  Indeed, before long Manon leaves des Grieux and lives a live of luxury with Geronte.  Lescaut arranges for des Grieux to meet up with Manon.  As the two begin to make love, Geronte interrupts and threatens them.  The two plan to free, but Manon’s is caught because she cannot give up her riches.  Des Grieux visits the prison and sees that Manon is being sent off to exile with a group of mostly prostitutes.  He begs the captain to let him work as a deckhand on board and his wish is granted.  The two eventually escape but Manon dies from thirst and exhaustion.

Conductor – Fabio Luisi; Chevalier des Grieux – Roberto Alagna, Lescaut (Manon’s brother) – Massimo Cavalletti, Geronte de Ravoir – Brindley Sherratt, Manon Lescaut – Kristine Opolais.

We have seen Massenet’s Manon a couple of times, and enjoyed it.  I was aware that Puccini also wrote an opera based on the same story, but never had the chance to see it.  Since we were back in Jersey City, I tried, and succeeded in getting a couple of rush tickets.  The theater felt more packed than the many empty seats on the seating chart would indicate, which was a good thing.  Nonetheless we could move in a couple of seats (K21) when the performance began.

The synopsis certainly read quite differently from that of Massenet’s Manon.  The most noticeable would be how much more the audience is expected to fill in the gaps (especially between Acts 3 and 4) in Puccini’s case.  Also, I don’t remember this “show within a show” in Act 2 being in Massenet’s work.  The basic story of money or love is still there (a less crass term of “luxury.”)

This is a new production.  The last time it was staged at the Met was in 2008, but we didn’t get to see it.  The one noticeable new aspect is the period the story is set in: 1940s France, occupied by Germany.  The sets are traditional (i.e., realistic) showing a train station, an opulent house, a dock, and a wasteland.  I don’t know what the old set looked like, so can’t comment whether this is an improvement.  With the exception of the last set, things generally worked.  During the intermissions Anne heard several complained about the need for all these Nazis; I don’t mind seeing all these soldiers, but wonder if they were necessary, or added anything to the story.

The other aspect that I would quibble is more with the plot.  In this version there is a rather long episode where several musicians entertain Manon with a madrigal written by Geronte.  Perhaps this is to show how luxurious a life she was leading, to me the librettist could have used that time to fill in some of the blanks in the storyline so the audience wouldn’t have to interpolate or make up so much of the story.  The other segment I could do without was Manon's hesitation to leave her jewelry behind when she was trying to escape.  The acting was comedic, but entirely incongruent with the rest of the story.  I do wonder if this was Puccini's original intent, or it was this artistic team's idea.

Given how close we were to the stage, I am surprised how (relatively) weak the singing sounded.  We saw Opolais a while ago in La Rondine, I thought she only did okay; tonight’s impression was similar.  I became aware Jonas Kaufmann was scheduled as the tenor only when I got to the auditorium.  Alagna was okay, but one wonders how Kaufmann would have fared.  Kaufmann may not be quite up to five hours of Wagner, but I imagine he would do much better in this opera.

Even though he was not in my direct line of sight, it was easy to see Luisi from our seats. He conducted with a lot of energy, and I am again surprised at how closely he directed the singers.  The score was easy to like, and the orchestra did a great job of it.

When we were talking about this opera, Anne looked at the New York Times review.  Even though I asked her not to tell me what the reviewer thought, she said enough that I suspected it wasn’t a good review.  I read it just now, turns out it was a pretty good one, except for this new production.  It was amazing that it took Alagna all of 16 days to get it together; although the slip we got with the program seems to say he had rehearsed it before, but had never performed it.  The review also describes the story in considerable detail; he used terms like “ridiculous” to describe the new production, though.

Curtain Call in front of "wasteland" of Act 4.  From the left: Brindley Sherratt (Geronte), des Grieux (Alagna), Luisi, Opolais (Manon), and Cavalletti (Lescaut).

One observation I would make is the Manon we saw (March, 2015) was the 271st performance at the Met, and this was the 218th performance for Puccini’s version.  Some indication of popularity?

With two intermissions the opera didn’t end until 11:15 pm.  It was close to midnight when we got back to Jersey City.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Opera Australia – Verdi’s Luisa Miller. February 11, 2016.

Joan Sutherland Theatre at Sydney Opera House.  Circle (Seat M27, A$99.)

Story.  Luisa is in love with Carlo, who is actually Rodolfo, Count Walter’s son.  Wurm is a suitor of Luisa and reveals to Miller Carlo’s true identity.  Walter also wants to end the relationship as he wants his son to marry the recently-widowed Duchess Federica who is in love with Rodolfo.  Walter wants to imprison Luisa and Miller, but spares them because Rodolfo threatens to reveal the secret that Walter only became the Count by having Wurm murder his cousin.  Miller is later imprisoned by Walter for insulting him, and Luisa is told by Wurm that Miller will be executed unless Luisa writes a note saying her relationship with Rodolfo is a sham, which she reluctantly does.  When Rodolfo sees the letter, Walter tells him the best revenge is to marry Frederica.  Instead the distraught Rodolfo drinks from a glass of poisoned water and offers the glass to Luisa.  Knowing that she is about to die, she tells Rodolfo that she wrote the letter only to save her father.

Conductor – Andrea Licata; Luisa – Nicole Car, Miller – Dalibor Jenis, Rodolfo – Diego Torre, Wurm – Daniel Sumegi, Count Walter – Raymond Aceto, Federica – Sian Pendry.

I wasn’t at all familiar with Luisa Miller, so I was looking forward to seeing this.  Turns out I am quite familiar with one of the arias (Quando le sere al placido,) where Rodolfo describes the happy times he had with Luisa were based on deceit.  Overall I am glad I went, but I did leave thinking the opera didn’t achieve its possible potential.  There were many empty seats, and we managed to move up a few rows: I had seat J28.

First the set.  I can’t imagine the thinking process that went into its design (and it’s a co-production with Opera Lausanne.)  The beginning was promising enough: a marble set that one could think of as a tomb or an altar, which is a motif quoted quite often in the opera.  The entire set is then moved out of the way and ends up hanging over the stage for the rest of the opera.  What is left is the barest of props: a few chairs placed on slanted surfaces.  The designers also went with a monochrome design, so the colors are mostly white, black, and gray.

To add to the surreal nature of the performance, the story is told as a flashback with a sense of “what could have been,” quoting from the handout.  Thus Luisa’s first appearance is her lying inside a wreath.

The story is quite pedestrian, with elements of unrequited love, betrayal, and death.  However, that is the basis of many operas; indeed Verdi wrote a few of them, La Traviata comes to mind, and they still appeal to the audience emotionally.  One wonders if a more traditional set will enhance the dramatic aspect.  As performed, the surreal element also makes the drama surreal.

Car as Luisa did the best job.  Not only was her singing great, she also came across as a sympathetic character, drawing sympathy from the audience as fate eventually led her to her death.  Torre as Rodolfo had no problem with the high notes, his voice is a bit too coarse for the role. While his rendition of Quando le sere al placido was commendable, it was not as heart-wrenching as the lyrics would indicate.  And frankly his considerable size makes him an unlikely Rodolfo.  Jenis as Miller did a superb job, he actually reminded me very much of Thomas Hampson.  Sumegi, Aceto, and Pendry put in solid performances.

In addition to the solo aria, there were quite a few other solo and ensemble passages that were quite demanding, and the artists generally did well.  There is this long quartet with a few key changes, done without orchestral accompaniment – the audience sighed with relief when the correct pitch was confirmed with the orchestra’s entrance.  The best duet is the Luisa/Miller one where the father is trying to discourage the daughter from committing suicide.

Verdi put in some lovely passages for the clarinet, and they were really nice to listen to.

There is enough drama in the story to be a La Traviata, Romeo and Juliet, and Tosca (the story certainly contains elements of all three,) and there is enough great music to stir the soul, yet I walked out of the theatre wondering what the opera “could have been” (to misquote the handout.)  To add to my dissatisfaction, my expectation that opera would end with Luisa back inside the wreath didn’t happen – I thought that would complete the “dream sequence.”  The marble set did come back onto the stage, though.

Curtain Call.  The set was rotated to hang over the stage, which had barely anything on it during the performance.

Somehow much music was repeated (a few lines as many as three times), which meant a longer opera than the story would warrant.  The opera ended at around 10:30 pm (three hours) and it was past 11 pm when we got back to the apartment.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sydney Symphony Orchestra – Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor; Garrick Ohlsson, piano. February 10, 2016.

Concert Hall at Sydney Opera House.  Circle (Seat Q19, A$119.)

Program: Ashkenazy’s Beethoven Celebration – Beethoven Triumphant
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73 (Emperor).
Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60.

This is our third concert during our trip, and the second all-Beethoven program.  Tim and Whitney also came along.  I will leave Sydney before the third Beethoven program starts, and won’t be able to see it.  After hearing four of his symphonies, I already have them confused in my mind.  After we got back to the apartment we are sharing this week, Tim put on the 4th Symphony again, and I wasn’t quite sure what it was.  A bit embarrassing, and a bit worrisome.  And that is one reason why I am staying up trying to record my thoughts on the performance, before I forget them.

We have heard Ohlsson several times before, and I always think of him as a solid technician not given to emotional flourishes.  Those attributes should serve him well with the Emperor, given its technical demands and grandiose design.  Ohlsson came through as he made the whole thing look easy.  While it may not be as frequent as Tchaikovsky, Beethoven tends to let the same themes permeate throughout the movement.  Played well, the concerto takes the audience on a majestic ride along the way; otherwise it may sound like a lot of repetitions.  To me there are times the piece sounded repetitious.  No doubt the complaint of a child during the performance contributed a bit to my lack of focus; that’s just too bad.

Garrick Ohlsson at curtain call.  Presenting a bouquet to the artist seems to be a common practice, except in the US.

The three movements of the concerto are Allegro; Adagio un poco mosso – Rondo (Allegro).  There was no break between the second and the third movements.  After the first movement there was a long pause so late-comers could be seated, which also disrupted the flow of the piece.

We also attended the pre-concert talk, given by SSO’s assistant conductor Toby Thatcher.  There were several interesting things he said (some may be reminders).  Beethoven had started on his fifth symphony when the commission for a new symphony came in, and that’s how the fourth was born.  The second movement’s introductory piano notes are the same as a tune in West Side Story – Anne got that while listening to the performance, I didn’t.  He also mentioned for those who think Beethoven can’t write a tune, Symphony No. 4 would be a counterexample.  I don’t think Beethoven had any problems with writing melodies, but if I did, I wouldn’t use this symphony to disprove it.  For some reason the audience chose to applaud after every movement.  A similar thing happened before when this symphony was played in New York, perhaps there is a tradition I didn't know about?

It was a delightful symphony.  For one that is supposedly not played that often, I have heard it quite a few times the last few years.  Tim claims this is his favorite Beethoven symphony.  The four movements are Adagio – Allegro vivace, Adagio, Allegro vivace – Trio (Un poco meno allegro), and Allegro ma non troppo.

A couple of remarks about the orchestra.  First, for all the complaints about New York Philharmonic's horn section (usually about how loud it is,) it is way better than the unsteady and unrefined horns we saw tonight.  Also, the principal bassoon is a guest, I suppose that means he is here auditioning for the job.  I would suggest the orchestra casts its net a bit wider.

We again stopped by Burger King to buy a sandwich to eat on the way home.

Opera Australia – Bizet’s The Pearlfishers. February 9, 2016.

Joan Sutherland theatre, Sydney Opera House.  Circle (Seat L32, A$99).

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor – Guillaume Tourniaire; Zurga – Jose Carbo, Nadir – Pavol Breslik, Nourabad – Daniel Sumegi, Leila – Ekaterina Siurina.

We saw a Met production of this opera about 3 weeks ago, and thought it would be interesting to see this in Sydney and compare the two, perhaps determining if my saying “they should go out more” has any truth to it or is just what a snob would say.

I saw this in Sydney more than 10 years ago (before my blogging days).  In discussions with Wendy – my nephew’s wife – who saw a different performance during the same season, we were both puzzled by the implied homosexual relationship between Zurga and Nadir.  Anne and I went to the pre-concert talk, by one of Opera Australia’s directors (not for this performance), who confirmed that there were more layers in the love triangle in the plot for the last production.  For this season they used the version believed to be closest to Bizet’s original, and that nuance would not be there.  That at least explained my puzzlement when I was seeing the Met performance.

The other point the speaker bragged about was that the Pearlfishers has been in OA’s standard repertory for the last 30 to 40 years while the Met has it on this season after about 100 years.  I have to give credit to the choice of operas by OA.  We will see Luisa Miller on Thursday, and I have not seen it performed anywhere else.  There are other operas that I first got to see in Sydney also: The Turk in Italy, or La Sonnambula, for instance.

Being the first doesn’t necessarily mean being the best, however.  I will get to the details later, but in nearly every aspect this performance fell short of the one at the Met.  I often joke that I am not a food connoisseur, and thus assign grades of B+ to the best and B- to the worst.  With music I can assign a grade of wider range – subjective, no doubt.  This is a B+ to the Met’s A.

This was a new production, and it was clear from the start that the design team wasn’t nearly as imaginative as the team at the Met.  Symmetry seems to be a big deal here, with all three sceneries (village with temple, temple close up, and Zurga’s study) neatly laid out.  And one would be hard pressed to say this is a fishing village.  There is a glimpse of an ocean in the background, but the “storm” is nothing more than some lighting/lightening flashes.

I do wonder if opera house managers talk to one another.  One would think they know their counterparts’ plans, and perhaps could discussion joint productions a little.

The performance started on an unsteady note, my remark to Anne was everything seemed a bit off.  Since this was already the seventh (if I heard correctly) time, I thought I was in for disappointment; indeed after the famous duet I had an “is that it” feeling.  As in the Met performance, the violin passage introducing Leila was botched.  Things improved a lot as the show went on, I especially enjoyed Nadir’s solo towards the end of Act 1.  Nadir ended up doing quite well, one problem was his voice was weak in comparison to Leila, so he was overwhelmed in some of the duet passages.  Zurga was a solid performer.  The orchestra, however, never came to its own and sounded just like an uncertain accompanist most of the time.  Not for lack of trying on the conductor’s part, his movements were among the most exaggerated I have come across.

As I mentioned before, we got to the venue early to hear a talk on the opera.  Perhaps I can be a bit boastful and say I knew most of what the speaker had to say, with the exception of the principals for tonight’s performance – not having bought the program, I knew nothing about any of the artists.  In this opera the priest’s role is divided into two: a mercenary part who takes in money (and does the singing), and a religious part represented by a guru-like character.  I don’t understand it, and I am sure it added at best a touch of silliness to the story.

There were enough empty seats for this performance that we managed to move up one row, and I occupied Seat K28 for the duration.

Curtain with set for Act 3 in the background.  The little blue patch seen through the arch is the ocean.

In the rush to get to the venue, we only had time for a sandwich between the two of us.  On our way back we shared a Whopper meal as we walked back to Walsh Bay.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Sydney Symphony Orchestra – Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor. February 6, 2016.

Concert Hall at Sydney Opera House.  Circle (Seat W34, A$91.50).

Program: Ashkenazy’s Beethoven Celebration – Beethoven Alive
Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92

We will be in Sydney for about two weeks.  During this time Ashkenazy, who used to lead the SSO, will be conducting a series of three all-Beethoven concerts.  We had already bought tickets for the second program (Emperor Concerto and Symphony No. 4), and the last in the series will happen after we return to New Jersey.  Today’s concert was the day after we arrived at Sydney, and I wasn’t sure Anne and I would be in any shape to go.  Turns out we would end up spending most of the morning in this part of town, so Anne and I decided to walk to the Opera House and see if any tickets were available.  Not wanting to pay A$145 per ticket, we got non-adjacent seats for A$89 each (plus a A$5 service charge.)  Anne had a seat in Row Y, which is the last row in the hall.

The acoustics were actually very good.  While the music sounded distant, by-and-large we could hear the individual parts clearly.  Today’s concert was also well-attended, there were only scattered empty seats here or there.

For the record, the movements of the symphonies are: Symphony 1 (i) Adagio molto – Allegro con brio, (ii) Andante cantabile con moto, (iii) Menuetto (Allegro molto e vivace), and (iv) Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace; Symphony 8 (i) Allegro vivace e con brio, (ii) Allegretto scherzando, (iii) Tempo di menuetto, (iv) Allegro vivace; Symphony 7 (i) Poco sostenuto – Vivace, (ii) Allegretto, (iii) Presto, (v) Allegro con brio.

The instrumentation for all three symphonies were identical (or very similar), although smaller string sections were used in Symphony No.1 (4 basses instead of 6, for instance.)

My first reaction is three Beethoven symphonies in one concert works out much better than three Mozart symphonies.  I had a much easier time with focusing today than I remember of the one New York Phil all-Mozart concert, despite my jet-lagged state.

I have observed multiple times before that Beethoven’s first symphony has a lot of Mozart elements in it: the relatively simple structure, the many repeated notes are two obvious examples.  Symphonies 7 and 8 were composed at around the same time (1812), and are more readily identified as “mature” Beethoven.  Having the three of them in the same program drives home the contrast.

The other thing that was somewhat surprising is how similar the three third movements sounded like.  As far as I could tell, they were all in Minuet and Trio format, played at a brisk pace.  Each of them when played as part of one symphony would sound fresh enough to feel like a completely different invention.

While all three symphonies are performed often enough that I am quite familiar with them, the second movement of the 7th is well-known from its use in the film Immortal Beloved.  I have always thought of that as a dirge that ends on a (relatively) positive note.  The Program Notes, however, makes the interesting case that this movement, being Allegretto, is “post-funeral” and is elevated to a dream-like consciousness, freed of earthly shackles.

Another interesting aspect about the 7th I learned from the Program Notes is Beethoven’s treatment of harmony, where keys of A, C and F are in contention.  Having read this before hearing the music, I tried to see how much of the “contention” I could get.  Indeed I could sense that different keys were at play here, I couldn’t tell if the “foreign” ones were C or F.  I have a reasonably good ear, but I can’t tell if C and F were the ones trying to elbow in the music or not.

Overall this was a very enjoyable concert, although I thought the SSO didn’t quite get to its usual level of excellence: among other things, the horns were sometimes unsteady, and the strings could be more together.  The ovation given afterwards was heart-felt and prolonged.

I knew Ashkenazy as a pianist, and indeed owned a few CDs with him as the solo piano.  Evidently he has been conducting for about 30 years.  He is in general quite effective, often economical with his actions.

We are staying in Walsh Bay, a short walk to the Opera House.  Afterwards we met up with Tim and Whitney – also visiting Sydney – and went down to my sister’s place to have a dinner with our extended families.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Jacques Lacombe, conductor. January 30, 2016.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC, Newark, NJ.  Tier 2 (Seat B101, $37.60).

Program.  Winter Festival: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (published 1600) by Shakespeare (1564-1616).
Incidental Music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (overture 1826, balance 1843) by Mendelssohn (1809-1847).

The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, Bonnie J. Monte, director.
Montclair State University Prima Voce, Heather J. Buchanan, director.
Karen Levandoski, soprano; Lisa Andreacchi, mezzo-soprano.

Story.  The Program Notes divides the story into three section.  (I) The Royals and the Lovers.  This is the story about Thesus (Duke of Athens) and Hippolyta (Queen of Amazon) who are about to get married.  Separately, Hermia’s father Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius.  Hermia loves Lysander and wants to elope with her, and Helena loves Demetrius.  The Fairies play a trick and all the relationships get mixed up.  Eventually Puck, henchman for Oberon the King of Fairies, restores the relationships, and all three couples get married.  (II) The Mechanicals.  Several workers of Athens, led by Peter Quince, want to perform for the Duke on his wedding day.  When they rehearse in the woods, the Fairies also play a plank on them, with Puck replacing Nick Bottom’s head with that of a donkey.  Titania, Queen of the Fairy, awakes and, through a spell cast by Oberon, falls in love with Bottom.  They are eventually released from their spells, with Bottom thinking it was only a dream.  The Mechanicals perform the play for the Duke and the Duchess.  (III) The Fairies.  Titania and Oberon argue because Titania refuses to give Oberon a changeling boy.  This causes Oberon to cast a spell on Titania which causes her to fall in love with the donkey-headed Bottom, asking her fairies to wait on him.  Oberon takes possession of the changeling, and releases Titania from the spell.  They also go to the wedding.

I got tickets to this concert because I couldn’t make one I already had tickets for, and I was running out of available concerts (and free days) to switch to.  And given our recent situation (travel, and staying in Jersey City a lot), I didn’t have time to find out what the concert was about.  All I knew was it was something about Midsummer Night’s Dream, as part of NJ Symphony’s Winter Festival.

What we read in the Program Notes certainly was quite interesting.  This is going to be an abridged version of Shakespeare’s play performed together with Mendelssohn’s music.  The Program Notes has one of the most sensible synopsis I have read about the play, of course that the three storylines are connected and intertwined in the play makes following along a bit difficult.  Add to this the difficulty I have understanding Shakespearean English, I could only grasp so much of the story, luckily enough that I had a general idea of what was going on.

Mendelssohn first wrote the overture when he was 17, and he completed the rest another 17 years later.  It would be interesting to see how Mendelssohn matured in the intervening years, but to me there wasn’t much of a “style” change at all (of course he could have revised his overture.)

Most of the time the orchestra was quiet when there was dialogue, and vice versa – although there are some occasional exceptions.  Since the orchestra took up most of the stage, the actors only had a “stage” with a 10-foot depth to work with (it’s wide enough, of course.)  There wasn’t much scenery (a couple of benches, a make-shift curtain), but the actors did wear costumes.  The actors wore mikes, our being in Tier 2 sometimes made it difficult to tell who was doing the speaking.

Although I really can’t assess how well the play went, nor could I listen to the orchestra attentively with all the action on stage, this was an overall pleasant experience.  Calling this a new art form may be too much, as both the music and play (perhaps too abridged) are standard repertoire.  The Program Notes doesn’t quite know what to call it either: “meld” and “artistic product” are two terms used to describe it.

The event was sparsely attended, which was too bad.  Out of the 10 or rows in tier 2, there were only enough people to fill two.  To be fair (to the empty seats?), we weren't planning to go originally either.  With an intermission, the concert lasted 2 ½ hours.