Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Marina Young Piano Recital. September 27, 2016.

Community Room, Middletown Township Library, NJ.

Program (see attached)

Mrs. Young was the piano teacher for our children when they were in high school. Every few years she would do a recital.  Anne told me last time she heard her was a joint recital with her husband, a violinist.

Her daughter told the gather audience that it had been over six years since the last concert, and tonight’s concert was dedicated to the memory of her father, who passed away five years ago.

I was able to get a lot of the sheet music on my iPhone as the concert progressed, and being able to follow along added a lot to my enjoyment.

The program was a combination of relatively easy (e.g., Schubert’s Waltzes) and rather difficult (Chopin’s Ballade) pieces.

Mrs. Young initially skipped over the Rachmaninoff Barcarolle, saying she wasn't quite ready to it.  She did perform it after the audience let out a groan.

There were quite a few people in attendance: students, their parents, and many fellow piano teachers.

Reminiscing about her two students from the 90s and early 2000s.

Monday, September 26, 2016

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Teddy Abrams, conductor; Sarah Chang, violin. September 24, 2016.

State Theatre, New Brunswick.  Front Orchestra (Seat L107, $43).

On the Town: Three Dance Episodes (1944) by Bernstein (1918-1990).
The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (1965-70, arr. 1992) by Piazzolla (1921-1992).
Tzigane (1924) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes (1942) by Copland (1900-1990).

After purchasing the NJSO Red Bank series, I never gave the rest of their season any thought.  Earlier this week I got a mailing advertising a sale for their opening weekend concerts.  $40 (plus $3 handling) got us a ticket front and center.

The program consisted of works that all drew heavily on the “common folk.”  On the Town originated as the ballet Fancy Free describing three sailors’ shore leave in New York. It was eventually turned into the Broadway show On the Town.  The three vignettes performed tonight had the self-explanatory titles of The Great Lover, Lonely Town: Pas de Deux and Times Square, 1944.  The other American composition that bookended the concert was originally a ballet describing the love interests of a cowgirl.  The ballet consists of five sections: Buckaroo Holiday, Ranch House Party, Corral Nocturne, Saturday Night Waltz, and Hoe-Down.  The orchestral suite omits Ranch House Party.  While the two compositions were written within two years of each other, they showed rather different characteristics.  Simplistically, Bernstein’s was jazzy and Copland’s was more “square dance” country.  Anne told me listeners of WQXR would be very familiar with Hoe-Down as it is used often as lead-ins and fade-outs.

Both pieces were enjoyable.  Perhaps to emphasize the jazzy nature of Bernstein’s work, the conductor was sometimes more like a band leader, saying “one-two-three-four” before the third movement.

In the middle part of the program there were two pieces that also had strong national flavors: Piazzolla’s Argentinian and Ravel’s Eastern European.  Of course Ravel wasn’t Romany, but he was inspired by the Hungarian violinst Jelly d’Aranyi (playing in London, of all places) to write Tzigane.

Piazzolla was brought up in New York, and didn’t attempt to incorporate tango characteristics into his music until later in life.  The Four Seasons has both Latin characteristics as well as references to Vivaldi in each of its movements.  The arrangement for violin and string orchestra was commissioned by Gidon Kremer in 1992 after Piazzolla’s death, although the Program Notes reassures us that Piazzolla won’t mind.  The pieces didn’t originate as a group, and weren’t considered by Piazzolla as a complete cycle.  If I remember correctly, Vivaldi didn’t start out to compose a suite called Four Seasons either.

We heard New York Philharmonic’s Frank Huang perform a couple of the movements last summer at Snug Harbor (same arrangement), and another by the Prima Ensemable in Princeton.  Interestingly they didn’t seem as technically challenging as what we heard today.  Perhaps Huang made it look easy, or (more likely) perhaps today we were seated front and center.  And for some reason the quotes from Vivaldi were much more evident.  Tonight's performance wasn’t without its flaws: there were occasional intonation problems with g-string high notes, and the orchestra overwhelmed Chang at times.  However, both the musicians and the audience enjoyed it.  The orchestra parts weren’t pieces of cake either, with some challenging solo passages for the principals; they all did their job superbly.

Curtain call after Piazzolla’s Four Seasons.

It was quite a few years ago when we heard Tzigane played by Vadim Repin in Alice Tully Hall, and more recently by Stefan Jackiw at Count Basie.  Each performance had its share of difficulties.  Chang certainly tackled them better, although not always with ease.  (Again the intonation problems.)

After Ravel’s Tzigane.  Indeed Sarah Chang changed her dress.

From how her violin sounded, it appeared Chang wasn’t using a Stradivarius.  Indeed, a web search confirms that she uses a Guarnerius.  The richer timbre may work with the low notes, but the brilliance and clarity of a Stradivarius would be more suited for a concert hall performance.  She still swung the bow and kicked, but much less than she used to, if memory serves.

This is the opening weekend for the 2016-2017 season, and one has to say the programming is a bit puzzling.  While each of the pieces has an interesting story behind it, none of them is particularly intellectually demanding.

Not that there is anything wrong with Teddy Abrams, but why this conductor, who seems to have no history with NJSO, for the opening concert, no less.  One explanation for both the program and musician choices could be they were put together during the “transition period” between conductors.  Abrams conducted with gusto, but some of his exaggerated movements didn’t quite elicit corresponding strong statements from the orchestra.  He was the first conductor I saw who wore jeans on the podium.

He did talk a bit about the program, and I incorporated some of his remarks into this writeup.

It was a bit disappointing to see the large number of empty seats in the auditorium.  If it bothered the artists, they didn’t let it show.

We didn’t leave the house until about 6:45 pm as Anne had “Middletown Day” duties the whole day, but got to New Brunswick early enough that I could circle around the block (many blocks in fact) to find parking.  It was even more straightforward to return home.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Hong Kong Philharmonic – Yu Long, conductor; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Wu Tong, sheng. September 10, 2016.

H. K. Cultural Center Concert Hall.  Balcony F164 (HK$1040.)

Symphony in C (1855) by Bizet (1838-1875).
Silent Woods, op. 58, no. 5 (1884, arr. 1893) by Dvorak (1841-1904).
Duo (2013) by Zhao Lin (b. 1953).

I am stopping by Hong Kong this weekend on my way to several meetings in Manila next week.  When I decided on the trip, I looked around and found this program that would be the season opener for the Hong Kong Philharmonic.  With Yo-Yo Ma as the headliner, it was close to a no-brainer; more on the “close to” a bit later.

The program started with a symphony Bizet wrote when he was all of 17 years old.  The piece however wasn’t published or performed until 60 years after his death.  I recall hearing Mozart’s first symphony, written when was 8, over the summer.  Perhaps reviving very early work of composers is in vogue nowadays?

The piece was not particularly difficult, except for some very fast passages in the last movement.  However, I wouldn’t have guessed that this was written at the beginning of Bizet’s composition career: the melodies were beautiful, the orchestration quite sophisticated, and there was much contrast; the only complaint I have would be how often some melodies got repeated, they got a little old.  Not necessarily a showcase for the orchestra, especially as a season and concert opener, nor for the conductor, for that matter.  Nonetheless a good way to get the concert started, especially if one didn't have specific expectations.

The Program Notes tries to say something about each of the Bizet movements.  The upside is one knew what to listen for, the downside is that may limit one’s appreciation of the music, the very downside is the disappointment I felt when I couldn’t get the “obvious forerunner of those memorable oboe solos from The Pearl Fishers” (second movement, Adagio) or the “bustling idea which Bizet subsequently adapted for use in Carmen” (fourth movement, Allegro vivace.)  On top of that, I am sure the description of the first movement (Allegro vivo) as “could have come straight from Schubert” would offend both the French and the Austrian.  The only thing I got was the “drone bass” discussed in the third movement (Scherzo – Allegro Vivace.)  So sometimes music can be enjoyed simply for its sake.

After the intermission, Yo-Yo Ma played the Dvorak piece.  It started life as a movement entitled “Silence” in the piano duet “From the Bohemian Forest” composed in 1884.  Dvorak hastily arranged it as a cello and piano piece during his “farewell” concert before he left for the US in 1892.  It was arranged into the current version in 1893.  The piece is relatively short at about 8 minutes.  My seat was in the balcony section, behind the orchestra, so the solo cello was furthest away from me.  As a result I had a bit of trouble picking out the solo's lines, but they sounded beautiful when I could hear them.  And this is one instance where I wished they had a smaller orchestra so they wouldn’t drown out the soloist the way they did.  (It may work very well for audience facing the stage.)

Duo” was the title in English, translated from the Chinese.  It is based on the story (popularized as Journey to the West, known to most Chinese) that describes how the monk Xuanzang traveled in search of scripture, enduring much hardship in the progress.  The original description of the piece is in Chinese, an English translation (which I went to first) was provided in the program.  It was only when I also read the Chinese that I realized how botched the translation was.  While the description involves some Buddhist concepts, those terms are quite well known and Google Translate should do quite well for them.  Instead, we seem to have whole passages translated by Google Translate, which can’t quite get the idioms and word orders correct in my own experience.  So something that should mean “early days of the Tang Dynasty” got translated as “an early morning during the Tang Dynasty,” and the Chinese title (pronounced “du”) became “duo” in English.  As this was a double concerto, I thought the composer was being unimaginative in naming the piece.  However, in Buddhism “du” means something like “transition” or “salvation.”

The composition consists of three movements played nonstop.  They are all slow, with some fast passages thrown in.  Instead of tempo markings, we have the titles “Form, Happiness, and Awakening.”  A Financial Times critic called the work “more a matter of contemplation and survival than reaching a particular destination.”  On the surface this doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is actually an insightful way to describe the rather pleasant and interesting piece.  If this composition is typical of the young Zhao Lin (趙麟), he is quite a composer.

The Sheng is a Chinese music instrument made of bamboo, and is used in this work to represent the qualities of the gods; the Cello, on the other hand, represents the unquenchable human spirit.  This and other notes in the Program certainly helped one’s appreciation, but the music can be appreciated at an abstract level.  It isn’t modern, not classical, not western, and not Chinese.  A great example of something that is cross-cultural and cross-period (as in classical, romantic, etc.)

This was the first time I was exposed to the Sheng as a solo instrument (I might have heard it in an ensemble before,) and I am impressed by both how versatile the instrument was, and how Wu Tong (吳彤) played it.  It could produce a range of sounds that one wouldn’t think possible from looking at the instrument, even though it looks quite complex.

Yo-Yo Ma was his usual exuberant self, delivering great music while appearing to enjoy it tremendously.  He had to feel particularly good since this piece came out of one of his Silk Road project activities.

The applause was thunderous, and we had two encores.  One was with both instruments, also written by Zhao, that has a drinking cup as its title, which Yo-Yo Ma roughly translated into “drinking song.”  While it sounded nothing like the aria Brindisi in La Traviata, it was capricious and enjoyable.  Ma then played a cello encore; it was a familiar sounding piece, but I do not know its title.  Both encores had orchestra accompaniment.  To Ma's credit, he acknowledged many of the orchestra members, and waved at those seated behind the stage.

Curtain call after "duo."  Yu Long and Wu Tong were wrapping their arms around one another, and Ma - cello in hand - was acknowledging the orchestra.

I have seen the name Yu Long (余隆) in Sydney and New York for quite a while now, mostly to conduct the Chinese New Year programs for the Sydney Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.  Per the Program Notes, he leads in some capacity the China Philharmonic (not the China National Orchestra), the Shanghai Symphony, and the Guangzhou Symphony; those must be among the top orchestras in the entire country, and he rules them all.  Recently he also collected high international honors from France, Germany, and the USA.  The best I can say is I am puzzled how he manages to do all that.  As my seat faces him, I imagined as a member of the orchestra, and felt rather uninspired.  He was a lot better with the Zhao piece, though.

I said earlier that buying a ticket to the concert was “close to” a no-brainer.  One hesitation I had was the Zhao piece, I thought if I were to listen to Ma it should be a famous cello concerto like Dvorak or Shostakovich.  The other hesitation was the price.  The best seats in a typical HK Phil concert costs me around US$50 (with senior discount), for this concert I had to dole out over $130 for a seat in the balcony (I didn’t realize it was behind the stage.)  I am not saying it was worth the money (hard to put a price on art), or that I don’t wish a more standard work was programmed, but I am quite happy with what I heard, and don’t mind how much I paid for the seat.  Of the many HK Phil concerts I have attended, this is the only sold out concert.  So big names matter, and the pricing scheme is market pricing at its best (or worst.)  I do wonder why van Zweden didn't do the opener; he remains the music director of Hong Kong Philharmonic.

It was a short ride back to Causeway Bay.  I am staying up past 2 am to get this finished, despite the considerable jetlag that is hitting me right now.