Thursday, June 30, 2016

Prima Trio. June 28, 2016.

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton.  Balcony Center.

Members: Anatasia Dedik, piano; Gulia Gurevich, violin & viola; Boris Allakhverdyan, clarinet.

Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, E flat, K. 498 “Kegelstatt” by Mozart (1756-1791).
Suite for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, Op. 157b by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974).
The Klezmer’s Wedding by Srul Irving Glick (1934-2002).
Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano by Khachaturian (1903-1978).
Otono Porteno (from Cuatro estachones portenas) byPiazzolla (1921-1992).
Serenade for Three by Schickele (b. 1935).

I was under the impression that there would be several pieces where the string instrument would be the viola, it turns out only piece that fit the bill was the Mozart piece.  Given Mozart's affinity for the viola and the clarinet, it is quite natural he would compose a piece for those instruments.

David explained to me “Kegelstatt” was a bowling game popular during Mozart’s time.  The three movements are Andante, Menuett, and Allegro.  As usual, I had some trouble picking out the viola part even though there were only two other instruments.  In any case, there was much interplay among the three players, and they did quite well.

Milhaud was born in France, but spent a lot of time in California writing music for movies.  The Suite was based on incidental music he wrote for a play “The Traveller without Luggage.”  When I looked up his Wikipedia entry, he had a long list of students, including Philip Glass and Peter Schickele, whose music was also on today’s program.

The movements of the Suite are Ouverture, Divertissement, Jeu, and Introduction et Final.

Per one of the musicians, Glick was also one of Milhaud’s students (confirmed by his Wiki entry.)  Klezmer’s Wedding is a lively dance that has a heavy dose of Jewish melodies.  To me it could easily have been lifted from the musical The Fiddler on the Roof.

The Khachaturian trio was how this group got together in 2004, while all were students at Oberlin College.  Khachaturian was an Armenian living in St. Petersburg – the clarinetist is Armenian (born in Azerbaijan to American parents), and the pianist is from St. Petersburg.  The trio contains reference to Uzbek melodies, the country the string player hails from.  From that start they have since built up quite a repertoire and record at various competitions.  I probably know more than one piece by this composer, but I think “sabre dance” when the name Khachaturian is mentioned; and this trio is nothing like that.

We just heard Winter and Spring by Piazzolla at the New York Phil Snug Harbor concert, today we got to hear Autumn.  Today’s arrangement is for three instruments.  I got the fast-slow-fast structure of the piece, but didn’t get any reference to Vivaldi’s work.

We heard of Schickele during our college days, what I remember was he wrote “funny” music, often for an electric keyboard.  That may or may not be correct.  What I heard today was quite serious.

The group did a short encore afterwards, making this a rather long program. The players took turn to say something about the piece that was about to be played.  I thought when playing the violin the musician was often a bit off; I wonder if switching between two instruments, with the different stop distances, may affect the muscle memory a little bit.  I did appreciate how well each of them played, and how well they worked together.  While many of the pieces can be considered contemporary or even modern, they all sounded quite melodious and relatively easy to get.

We got to Princeton early and had a leisurely dinner with David and Vivien.  It was good to have some time to catch up, even though we do see each other quite often.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Aizuri Quartet. June 23, 2016.

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton.  Balcony Center.

Quartet members: Miho Saegusa, violin; Ariana Kim, violin; Ayane Kozasa, viola; Karen Ouzounian, cello.

String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat major, Op. 18 by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Blueprint by Caroline Shaw (b. 1982).
String Quartet No. 3 in A major, Op. 41, No. 3 by Schumann (1810-1856).

This was the first of the four chamber music concerts hosted by the Princeton University Summer Concerts organization.  As usual, it was David and Vivien who brought the series to our attention.  Since we just returned from Maine a couple of days ago, and had attended the Snug Harbor concert the day before, Anne decided to forego the event.  I was quite ready to go.

The quartet consists of four young women, and was formed in 2012.  David mentioned to me there was a recent change in membership as one of the violinists left for a solo career.  In any case, the violinists switch the first and second violin roles, with Saegusa playing the lead in Beethoven and Schumann, and Kim the Shaw piece.

Since I am not very good with chamber music, my reaction to the pieces was “that’s pretty good.”  Particularly so since I am writing this several days later, and had heard a second concert in the series just now, thus any specific recollections have been wiped clean.

A Princeton professor, Scott Burnham, introduced each of the three pieces.  His descriptions were simple enough, a few sentences about each of the movements, using familiar words and phrases like brilliant, emotion, gallop, and descending fifth.  While they helped me look for particular patterns, they were not all that “educational,” and I have forgotten most of them by now.

The movements of the Beethoven quartet are (i) Allegro con brio; (ii) Adagio ma non troppo; (iii) Scherzo: Allegro; and (iv) La Molinconia: Adagio-Allegretto quasi Allegro.  For the Schumann piece: (i) Andante espressiv - Allegro molto moderato; (ii) Assai agitato; (iii) Adagio molto; and (iv) Finale: Allegro molto vivace - Quasi Trio.

The exception was the piece Blueprint, both the composer and the composition turned out to be quite interesting.  Burnham described how he heard on the news that a certain Caroline Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize in music composition and marveled at that winner as having the same name as one of the students in Princeton’s music department before it dawned on him that it was their Caroline Shaw that won the prize.  At age 30, she was the youngest winner in the music category. Blueprint was written for the Aizuri Quartet.  The word Aizuri-e in Japanese has something to do with the blue ink used in woodblock print that was imported to Japan from Europe.  What Shaw did was to “reduce” Beethoven’s Quartet we just heard into its fundamental elements, and then wrote a new quartet based on those elements, thus the title “Blueprint.”  The music equivalent of Picasso’s cubism, I guess.

If I ever write about paintings, I would say I may appreciate Picasso at a gut level, but I can never make heads or tails of how cubism informed his work.  (And I have a book on Picasso, yet to be read.)  If someone goes through the two compositions and explain to me how the Beethoven blueprint leads to Shaw’s quartet, I may be able to follow.   But I probably won’t hear it.  I joked to David that it sounded more like it was based on Quartet No. 5.

In reading up on her on Wikipedia, I found out she is a violinist, a singer, and a composer.  And another curious fact about her: she is the great-great-grand daughter of the conjoined twins Chang and Eng.

The concert was generally a good experience.  The individual players all seem to do very well.  I only wish I had a more solid grounding in chamber music to be able to appreciate it more.

We didn’t meet up for dinner as David and Vivien had a family dinner with Daniel (whom we also know.)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Frank Huang, leader/violin. June 22, 2016.

Snug Harbor Music Hall, Staten Island.  Seat center front.  ($0.)

Selections from Las cuatro estacioes portenas (The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires), for violin and string orchestra (1965-70) by Piazzolla (1921-92).  Arr. L. Desyatnikov.
Le qquattro stagioni (The Four Seaons) (ca. 1715) by Vivaldi (1678-1741).

Yi-Heng Yang, harpsichord.

We had tickets to the regular season concert in which Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons was programmed, but had to give the tickets away because of a China trip.  So it was an easy decision when I found out about this free “Concert in the Park” event, especially since it would be held indoors, on Staten Island.

Music Hall at Snug Harbor

I don’t know much about Piazzolla, other than he had this tango sound.  Per the Playbill, the “Seasons” are among the most advanced examples of his New Tango style.  Indeed, the Playbill has more detailed description of how this work pays tribute to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  One example is each “Season” has a fast-slow-fast form, the other is the inclusion of some melodic allusions; I did get one or two of those.  The music is generally pleasant to listen to, but I can’t say I understood it, or enjoyed it.

The two seasons performed were Invierno porteno (Winter in Buenos Aires, 1970) and Primavera portena (Spring in Buenos Aires, 1969).

For us the excitement of Vivaldi was that Yi-Heng got to play the continuo part on the Harpsichord.  Of course I also wanted to hear Frank Huang, the new concertmaster.

Huang certainly was up to the technical challenge, and there were many in this piece, mostly in how fast some of the passages are.

The “orchestra” was properly named “Musicians from the New York Philharmonic” as it consisted of ten string players and the harpsichord.  Surprisingly I didn’t get as crisp a sound as I expected from such a small ensemble.  While the harpsichord as continuo was only supposed to provide “background,” I would have preferred a louder volume.

Curtain Call after Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Another interesting observation: of the 12 players, 10 were Asians, 10 were women.  This speaks to the generational cultural shift in this organization, if not the country.

I was hoping to compare how the New York Phil and its concertmaster compare with their New Jersey counterparts (heard in November, 2015), and decided to cop out as I don’t have a clear winner.  How’s that for bravery, or lack thereof.

Snug Harbor is a nice location for a summer evening.  Chung Shu and Shirley came by our house to share a pizza before we headed up.  We could have packed a picnic and eaten there.  In any case, getting to it was relatively easy, and we could park right next to the concert hall!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Jacques Lacombe, conductor; Joyce Yang, piano. June 11, 2016.

Count Basie Theater, Red Bank, NJ.  Balcony (Seat E102, $37.60).


Night and the City (2010) by Rogerson (b. 1988).

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 (1909) by Rachmaninoff.

La Valse (1920) by Ravel (1875-1937).

Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 (1912) by Ravel.

This is the farewell series led by Lacombe after a six-year stint with the NJSO.  Coupled with Joyce Yang playing Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto No. 3, one would think this is a concert not to be missed.  Leave it to New Jersey to have many empty seats in the small Count Basie Theater.  If one’s expectations are low, then that there were more in attendance today than usual is an encouraging sign.  One of the trustees came on to thank Lacombe (after thanking the sponsors) for taking NJSO to new heights; a statement I would generally agree with, and I have said multiple times the orchestra plays well under him.

The six-minute lead-off piece is by the young composer Chris Rogerson.  The piece describes his first experience living in a big city (Philadelphia).  As new music goes, I liked it very much.  It is quite sonorous, and describes a scene that somehow reminds me more of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” than a busy Philly evening.  He is young (not yet 30) so should have a lot of time to improve his craft.  He came on stage at the end of the piece to take a bow.

I haven’t encountered Rachmaninoff’s Third that often in concert, but have heard it over my iPhone multiple times during some of the long flights I have taken.  Perhaps there is a reason it is not played that often, it is close to 40 minutes of non-stop virtuosic playing, with a break only here or there.  Joyce Yang burst onto the music scene a few years ago as a young woman, so I was looking forward to this first opportunity to hear her perform.

Overall I was disappointed.  Even when the first piano notes were played, I was surprised at how loud it was compared to the sound of the orchestra.  My usually complaint is the soloist gets overwhelmed, in this case it is the opposite.  With a few exceptions, the orchestra seemed to be whimpering along, afraid of intruding on the soloist.  While much of this might be attributable to the acoustics, but I don’t recall having this concern ever inside Count Basie.

I can’t comment on Yang’s technique, and am indeed very impressed with what I saw.  My major issue is the performance seemed to be simply stringing together a long series of difficult passages, there is no story, no conversation, and no engagement.  Impressive for most 25-year old pianists, but not quite at the level of a master.  (Yang was born in 1986.)  In any case, the applause afterwards was thunderous.

The three movements of the concerto are Allegro ma non tanto; Intermezzo: Adagio; and Finale: Alla breve.

We heard two Ravel pieces after the intermission.  By now I knew how La Valse started as waltz but devolved into rather dark music to reflect Ravel’s disappointment with humanity – this was a couple of years before the first world war.  Daphnis and Chloe was a ballet score Ravel written in cooperation with Sergei Diaghilev.  Suite No. 2 consists of three movements Lever du jour, Pantomine, and Danse generale.  They make up the final scene of the ballet where Daphnis and Chloe are united, and they mime the story of Pan and Syrinx, followed by a celebration of their love.  Both pieces are easy to get, although tonight I didn’t think La Valse sounded all that dark.  I gained some appreciation of how Ravel could use music to depict specific scenes (like sunrise and birds chirping.)

So that’s it, end of an era.  I was hoping Lacombe’s tenure would end on a higher note, he deserved it.  While I am generally impressed with how he brought high standards to the orchestra, I do feel things have plateaued for a while.  Where will Xian Zhang take this organization in the coming years?