Monday, March 21, 2016

New Jersey Symphony – Christian Arming, conductor; Stephen Hough, piano. March 19, 2016.

State Theatre, New Brunswick, NJ.  Balcony (Seat A109, $37.)

Program – Romantic Masterworks
Siegfried Idyll (1870) by Wagner (1813-1881).
Piano Concerto in A Minor (1841-1845), Op. 54 by Schumann (1810-1856).
Symphony No. 2 in D Major (1877), Op. 73 by Brahms (1833-1897).

The title of the program probably applies to the works by Schumann and Brahms.  Not to take anything from Wagner, but most people think of his operas as his masterpieces, and rightly so.

So happens I heard this performed in November, 2013, performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic.  The conductor was Lorin Maazel.  What I remember from that concert was this piece had nothing to do with Siegfried as in the Ring, but rather it was written by Wagner after the birth of his child.  The piece was performed in the foyer of the Cultural Centre, which didn’t work out that well because of the acoustics, and because only a small ensemble was used.

Today’s performance was done by a large orchestra, which the Program Notes claims was done during Wagner’s time, with him as the conductor on occasion.  The other claim made by the Annotator was some themes were taken from the opera Siegfried, the third act, as a matter of fact.  The Notes also says that this is the closes thing to a symphony that Wagner wrote.  I guess that why musicologists and music historians keep their jobs; and why I write a blog.

Of course I don’t remember much of what I heard in 2013, but I am sure that it didn’t sound at all like today’s performance.  The piece then was quiet and idyllic, today’s was more exciting to hear, but not always on the idyllic side.

I know enough about the works by Schumann and Brahms to have a sense of what the music sounds like, but not so familiar that I end up trying to compare what I heard to what I considered the “right” way to do the music.  It made for very enjoyable listening: I was (mentally) tapping along, but still surprised every now and then by where the story went.

It may be heretical to a serious music student, but overall impression of this Schumann concerto is it very much like a Liszt concerto (both No. 1 and 2) in how the piano works with and against the orchestra.  The demands on technique may not be as severe, but that is made up for by the musicality.  A virtuoso versus an artist, so to speak.  Not that this concerto was easy – our seats in the balcony were quite close to the stage – and Stephen Hough made that so.

Per the Program Notes, this piano started off as a Pantasie for piano and orchestra written in 1841.  Schumann then suffered a mental breakdown in 1844, and when he recovered, he added an Intermezzo and Finale to complete the concerto, which has movement markings Allegro affettuoso, Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso, and Allegro vivace.

We did hear the Brahms symphony as recently as October, 2015.  My blog entry said “this was a great concert.”  I then proceeded to lament how muddled some passages were.  Somewhat to my surprise, “muddled” didn’t cross my mind at all.  Sure, there were some passages that did sound as clean as they could be, perhaps I do grade according to expectations.  The movements are (i) Allegro non troppo; (ii) Adagio non troppo; (iii) Allegretto grazioso (Quasi andantino); and (iv) Allegro con spirit.

Arming looked young (born in 1971, in Vienna, per Wikipedia.)  His conducting style is traditional, but seemed to exaggerate sometimes, and was too passive at others.  Perhaps that is one reason why the music sounded disjoint at times.

Curtain call after the Schumann piano concerto.  Stephen Hough on the left, and Christian Arming behind the piano.

I used to remark that this orchestra seemed to work very well with Lacombe, but not that well with guest conductors.  My experience the last few concerts indicate that the situation has improved a lot.

There were many empty seats in the balcony, which was too bad.

New Brunswick is very close to our house, it was easy getting there and back on a Saturday evening.  We even managed to find off-street parking.

Friday, March 18, 2016

New Jersey Symphony – Perry So, conductor; Eric Lu, piano. March 12, 2016.

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank.  Balcony (Seat E101, $37.60.)

Program: All-Mozart
Overture and Ballet Music from Idomeneo, K. 366 and 367 (1780-1781) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488 (1784-1786).
Symphony No. 41 in C Major, “Jupiter,” K. 551 (1788).

I vaguely recall the last all-Mozart program as one by the New York Philharmonic where the last three of Mozart’s symphonies were performed.  My recollection was too much Mozart isn’t necessarily a good thing.  A review of my blog entry reminded me that it was in 2006, with Maazel conducting.  Turns out there were other all-Mozart programs I have been to; interestingly none was at a Mostly Mozart Festival concert.

The interesting aspect for this concert is the conductor is a Hong Kong-born person, and the pianist is a Chinese-American born in Massachusetts.  I had heard the name Perry So before in conjunction with Hong Kong Philharmonic, although I never saw him conduct any of the HK Phil concerts I attended; today would be our first encounter with Eric Lu.

Idomeneo isn’t one of Mozart’s popular operas, I recall seeing that performed once at the Met, and haven’t seen that advertised anywhere else.  While pleasant to hear, I am not sure what story is being told by the music.  I don’t remember from the opera any ballet scenes, but I can assume they were put in routinely in operas from that period.  The Program Notes contain a brief synopsis of the opera, and a rather detailed analysis of the music, describe the ballet music as “a marvelous discover” for Mozart lovers.  By that measure, I am no Mozart lover.  The movements are Overture; Chaconne; Larghetto; La Chaconne, qui reprend, and “Pas seul.”

The piano concerto didn’t quite live up to its promise.  My usual standard for a good Mozart performance is “light and crisp.”  Lu met the “crisp” criterion, but his playing was quite heavy handed, and rather disjoint.  I did enjoy the third movement, though.  The three movements are Allegro, Adagio, and Allegro assai.  He played a encore (most likely one of Chopin’s etudes) that was quite enjoyable.

At intermission I read up on Eric Lu a bit.  He has done well in many Chopin competitions, including winning the 2015 National Chopin Competition and placing fourth at the 2015 Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.  Since he is now only 18, it puts things in perspective.

The Program Notes again had an interest-piquing write-up on the symphony.  Particular mention was made of the finale, which has a double fugue-like construction, a theme played backwards, and a coda where all five themes were woven together.  I had some luck with catching the fugue aspects, and could hear a few melodies going at the same time (but not five of them,) and missed the “backwards” portion completely.  Nonetheless, it was a delightful symphony, at over 30 minutes a long one for Mozart.  The movements are Allegro vivace, Andante cantabile, Menuetto: Allegretto, and Molto allegro.

Perry So is in his early thirties.  His conducting was on the precise side, but the result didn’t hang together as much as I would like.  Given there are some few Hong Kong-born conductors on the international stage, I wish him success.

The concert was reasonably well attended.  There were quite a few empty seats in the balcony, though.  It was straightforward to get to Red Bank.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Yuja Wang, piano; Valerie Hartmann-Claverie, ondes Martenot. March 11, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra Rear (Seat PP107, $32.50.)

Turangalila-symphonie (1946-48, rev. 1990) by Messiaen (1908-92).

I skipped this concert when I did our CYO subscription for this season, even though Yuja Wang and Salonen were on the program, as it didn’t make it high enough in the list of concerts I wanted to see.  A couple of weeks ago we got an email advertising seats for $29, and since we would be staying in Jersey City this evening, we decided to go for it.

Nowadys New York Philharmonic nickels and dimes its customers.  Perhaps it is necessary due to financial considerations, but for the two tickets we also had to pay a $7 facility fee, and a $7.5 service fee for the privilege of printing at home (it would be $15 for box office pickup), so the total for the two tickets comes to $72.50.  In this instance it was worth it.  Our seats, third row from the last, had surprisingly good acoustics; they are directly below the first tier, where seats costs a lot more.  While I couldn’t really follow the music, I found it engaging for the entire 75 or so minutes (if not entire, at least most.)  Compared to other music written in the mid-twentieth century, it was an unexpected but pleasant experience.

The Playbill contains some interesting facts about Messiaen and the piece, which is worth repeating here.  Messiaen’s music has two major characteristics: meditations related to Roman Catholic theology, and inspirations from birdsong.  Other focal points include complicated rhythmic relations, and the other is carnal love as embodied in the tale of Tristan and Isolde.  Messiaen described Turangatila-symphonie as “a love song.  It is also a hymn to joy … a joy that is superhuman, overflowing, blinding, unlimited.” He also provided a simple description at the work’s Boston premiere, conducted by Leonard Bernstein: “The work is a song of love … it is unnecessary to provide further explanation.”  The Sanskrit words Taranga and Lila have the respective meaning of “tempo, pace of a swift horse” and “life-force, the act of creation, rhythm, and movement.”  Messiaen claims neither the modes nor the rhythms used are borrowed from Hindu folk music.

Before introducing the soloists, Salonen spent about ten minutes talking about the program.  Not having taken any notes, there may be errors in my recollection.  He first characterized the music as being “fresh” all the time, and cited other works of this nature: Eroica, Symphonie Fantastique, Rite of Spring, and Tristan and Isolde, saying that is every composer’s dream.  He also described how Messiaen considered every note to be important, citing as an example the time he spent at Messiaen’s apartment, after going through every note on a page, Messiaen would then turn to p. 2 (it was quite funny the way Salonen described it.)  Evidently Messiaen was in love with someone (perhaps Yvonne Loriod, who premiered this work,) but his Catholic background would make marriage impossible (the two eventually married, though.)  Finally, while the piece started with human love, it eventually turned to the planets and the cosmos.

Curtain Call after the performance.  Yuja Wang is the one in the green dress, everyone else wore black.  The Ondes Martenot can barely be made out to the right of the piano.

This was the work for a large orchestra.  In the front of the stage there was a xylophone (vibraphone), two celestes, a piano, and the ondes Martenot.  In the back I counted another seven or eight percussionists, also I couldn’t tell how the different instruments were placed.  The bass drum had a very prominent position: center, back, and high on a platform.   Everyone showed up, including the concertmaster Frank Huang.  The movements were quite well demarcated: (i) Introduction, (ii) Chant d’amour I, (iii) Turangalila I, (iv) Chant d’amour II, (v) Joie du sang des etoiles, (vi) Jardin du sommeil d’amour, (vii) Turangalila II, (viii) Developpement de l’amour, (ix) Turangalila III, and (x) Final.  Perhaps the only insightful thing I can say is that the last movement sounded most conventional, and felt a bit out of place in relation to the other movements.

The piano had a variety of roles throughout the piece.  Sometimes it clearly was the solo instrument, with the pianist pounding out virtuoso passages in a dialog with the orchestra, sometimes it faded into being part of the music.  All I could tell was Yuja Wang had quite a bit of work out throughout the 75 or so minutes.  She needed the music in front of her (who can blame her) but managed to turned the pages by herself.  Many passages were doubled up by the celestas.

To my surprise, this wasn’t my first encounter with the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot.  The best way I can describe its sound is that of a songbird, or the wailing of a friendly ghost.  A search of the web indicates other sounds made by this instrument, but I couldn’t hear them during the performance, if they had been made at all.  The soloist was quite still for the entire performance.  In any case, the instrument wasn’t as prominently featured in the music as the piano.

The Ondes Martenot.

I was asked by CS whether this was a concert worth going.  I told him yes, not because I could get the music, but because it was an interesting experience, with a large orchestra, complex sounds, and exposure to new or rarely used instruments.  I did suggest not to have a seat in the front of the auditorium since it won’t provide a view of the full orchestra.  Further, not too many orchestras are equipped to handle a work that is as ambitious as this.  And the whole experience is captivating enough that I didn’t think 75 minutes of it was too much; Anne drew her line at 60 minutes, though.

The New YorkTimes reviewer attended the first performance.  Evidently Salonen had different things to say on that occasion, including brief descriptions of each of the movements.  While the reviewer had good things to say, it was a surprisingly short review, covering only limited parts of the piece.

We will be vacating our Jersey City apartment the next day.  This is the last event we could make use of the convenience of the apartment.  We stopped by Brookfield Mall for dinner before continuing onto Lincoln Center.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Christoph von Dohnanyi, conductor. March 8, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Z103, $69.50).

Ein deustsches Requiem (A German Requiem) Op. 45 (1866-68) by Brahms (1833-97).

Camilla Tilling, soprano; Matthias Goerne, baritone.
New York Choral Artists – Joseph Flummerfelt, director.

Per the Playbill, this was last performed by the New York Philharmonic in 2007, with Lorin Maazel the conductor.  Looking back at my blog, we attended a concert in that series.

Frankly I had forgotten everything about the piece, other than it was in German and didn’t use the standard Latin liturgy.  Many aspects of the composition distinguish it: no lamb of God, no Days of Wrath, no Kyrie Eleison.  Instead we find the following seven movements: (i) Blessed are they that mourn, (ii) For all flesh is as grass, (iii) Lord, teach me, (iv) How amiable are Thy tabernacles, (v) Ye now therefore have sorrow, (vi) For here have we no continuing city, and (vii) Blessed are the dead.  Other than some passages from the books “Wisdom of Solomon” and “Ecclesiasticus,” the lyrics are taken from the Bible.  It is interesting that the requiem begins with “blessed are they that mourn” and ends with “blessed are the dead.”

Many criticize the lyrics’ not mentioning the redemptive work of Christ (Agnus Dei), and to one critic Brahms replied “I can neither argue away nor strike out a ‘from henceforth’ from my venerable poets.”  Indeed the German phrase “von nun on,” found in the last movement, was used many times.

The choral part of (vi), talking about God’s glory, honor, and power, was one of the loudest passages of the requiem.  Even though von Dohnanyi held his arms up, many in the audience applauded anyway.  That was perhaps an understandable mistake as I found it difficult to follow along the German text, even with some knowledge of German.  To me the inability of the chorus to articulate the words with precision was the weakest aspect of the performance.  This turns out was my same complaint about the 2007 performance.  The 80-plus strong ensemble otherwise did a good job, responding well to the direction of the conductor.

The orchestra did a good job, with the cellos putting in a particularly good reading.  Anne was listening for the trumpets (in (vi) we have ‘for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised’) but couldn’t hear it; I didn’t even think of listening for it.  In any case, the score calls for only two trumpets.

The requiem lasted about 75 minutes, considerably longer than the advertised 60 minutes.  The soloists had little to do.  Actually it had to be about 45 or more minutes into the performance before Tilling got to sing her short aria.  It didn’t begin well, it sounded as if she needed some warm up exercises.  The notes rose quickly to a very high pitch (can’t tell what note it is,) and Tilling simply sounded strained.  She improved as things progressed, but not enough to redeem the performance.  Goerne was also the soloist for the 2007 series, he put in a solid performance.

Despite many things being slightly off, it was an enjoyable performance.  Von Dohnanyi is 86 years old, but appeared to be much younger.  There was a high stool on the podium, which he only made use of for a couple of minutes after the fourth movement (if memory serves.)

Curtain call with Tilling, von Dohnanyi, and Goerne.

The New YorkTimes review characterizes the performance as “exquisitely prepared and performed,” and an “occasion not to be missed.”  There were a few minor complaints, particularly about the soloists.

We stopped by the newly-reopened Europan for dinner afterwards.  We still managed to get back to Jersey City a bit after 10 pm.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

New Jersey Symphony – Miguel Harth-Bedoya, conductor; Stephen Fang, cello. February 27, 2016.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC.  Orchestra (Seat G105, $52.)

Appalachian Spring (1943-44) by Copland (1900-1990).
Silent Woods (1891) by Dvorak (1841-1904).
Hungarian Rhapsody, Op. 68 (1893) by Popper (1843-1913).
Symphony No. 9 in E Minor “From the New World,” Op. 95 by Dvorak.

In stark contrast to the New York Philharmonic program of the last concert, this one actually had a title – Vistas and Landscapes: Copland and Dvorak.  The conductor spoke briefly after the first piece was performed, describing the pieces by Copland and Dvorak.  He also said the piece by David Popper was just a nice addition to the program.

For all its “fame,” Appalachian Spring doesn’t get performed that often, either as a ballet or this orchestral suite.  I had always thought of the setting as somewhere in Tennessee, so I was surprised to learn from the Program Notes that Copland actually had in mind the Pennsylvania Dutch country.  Well, the Shaker melody should have been the give-away.  Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, Copland was thinking of neither Appalachia nor Spring when he wrote the ballet.  What gives?

The piece didn’t get the concert off on a good start.  While competently performed, it didn’t evoke the peace and quiet that is usually associated with the music.

Stephen Fang is the associate principal of NJSO, and he got to be the soloists today.  The first one, by Dvorak, is best characterized as “incidental music.”  It started as part of From The Bohemian Forest, a collection for one piano, four hands.  Dvorak then arranged it for cello and piano, and later for cello and orchestra.  It was a lovely tune to listen to.  Not having been to that part of Europe, I must assume that was what walking in the woods would be like.

Per the Program Notes, Popper was the greatest cello virtuoso of the late 19th century, and wrote more than 100 works, almost all for cello.  The piece performed today sounded distinctly Hungarian, and showcased Fang’s technical prowess.  There are quite a few “ordinary” passages interspersed between the difficult ones; I thought they were unnecessary, perhaps they were there to give the soloist some time to breathe in between?

The audience seemed to love Fang, if the applause was any guide.

In reviewing my blog, the most recent encounters I had with the New World were in 2010 (Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Dudamel) and 2014 (Hong Kong Philharmonic conducted by Forster.)  To my surprise, my reviews for both were on the negative side.  In contrast, of all the words I could use to describe today’s performance, “disappointment” isn’t one of them.  The story was told simply, and told well.  I would consider this as one of the few instances where a guest conductor worked well with the New Jersey Symphony.

This was my first encounter with the Peru-born conductor Harth-Bedoya, his music training was from Curtis and Julliard.  He was quite precise in his movements, and did well with this orchestra, my comments about the Copland piece notwithstanding.

Anne had to go to Jersey City at the last minute, so couldn’t make the concert.  I ended up going by myself.