Monday, October 31, 2016

London Symphony Orchestra – Gianandrea Noseda, conductor; Yuja Wang, piano. October 29, 2016.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC, Newark, NJ.  Tier 2 (Seat D110, $28.50).

Overture to Die Meistersinger (1862) by Wagner (1813-1883).
Piano Concerto in G Major (1929-1931) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937) by Shostakovich (1906-1975).

This was our third concert in three days, although the tickets were bought at different times, and each of them have their special attraction: Xian Zhang debuting as NJSO’s music director, Frank Huang performing Bruch’s violin concerto, and – for tonight – the London Symphony and Yuja Wang.

The London Symphony is based at the Barbican Center, with Simon Rattle as its music director (designate), and Noseda one of its two principal conductors.  The largest ensemble was used in the Shostakovich Symphony, and I counted 92 musicians, plus the conductor.  Each year they perform 70 concerts in London, and another 70 worldwide; I guess they must have transportation logistics down pat.

We saw Die Meistersinger at the Met about two years ago, and am somewhat familiar with the story.  Per the Program Notes, Wagner composed the overture before he did the opera, and included the “Prize Song” in it.  The tunes sounded vaguely familiar, although honestly I wouldn’t have placed it had it not been for the Notes.  Interestingly, at the beginning the orchestra sounded in a disjoint way, similar to what we heard a couple of days ago from the New Jersey Symphony.  However, their sound quickly improved and we enjoyed the piece.  The orchestra is large.  I counted 92 musicians plus the conductor performing the Shostakovich piece.

I had heard the Ravel Concerto in G performed quite a few times before, and each time came away somewhat lost.  The piece certainly was a showcase for the soloist (Ravel couldn’t do it himself), and I would gleam this or that from the performance.  I must say this time I got the most out of it, that it was very jazzy and Gershwin-like came across clearly (particularly the first movement.)  Perhaps it was the performer: Wang certainly made the music very clear, and she could simply make this concerto sing in a way I hadn’t heard before.  Or because it was my finally getting it (or rather more of it) after many attempts.  Another possible reason is how well the orchestra worked with the soloist.  To all that I would add something I did: I looked through the score (thanks to YouTube postings) before the concert, and could make some sense of how the piece is structured.

 Yuja Wang after performing the Ravel Concerto.  Noseda sat in the back as she played her three encores.

Actually I realized a few more things from going through the music beforehand.  One was the paucity of notes for the piano.  Looked at from a distance, the score didn’t appear particularly difficult.  It is only when one looked at the details that one discovers the difficulties with the music.  Second was the rhythm was particularly challenging, at least for someone without a strong jazz background.  Third was the interplay between the piano and orchestra is also difficult to pull off.  These points made my appreciation of the performance that much more.

The Program Notes describes the second movement (Adagio assai) as the heart of the concerto.  I would like to think a lot would be missing if one simply listened to the second movement, as pleasant as it may be.  The first (Allegramente) and third (Presto) movements are what make this piece uniquely Ravel.

Perhaps to make up for the relatively short concerto (about 22 minutes), Wang played three encores in succession.  They were a piece based on various melodies from Carmen, Chopin’s Waltz (op. 64, no. 2), and a modified version of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca (K. 311).  With the possible exception of Chopin, these were pieces to show off the technical skills of a pianist.  But Wang did much better than that: her musicality came through in the Waltz, and the way she could carry on the “counterpoints” with her two hands was just amazing. 

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was written during the height of the Soviet Union’s purge of the cultural scene to make sure every piece of work glorified the revolution.  The works he had completed recently were condemned, so this was also a work to rehabilitate himself.  I don’t know Shostakovich’s music well enough to analyze how he made the changes, but agree with the Program Notes – whose ideas I paraphrased above – that “the language is simplified, … The level of dissonance is lower and the music is contained within a clear formal plan.”  I again had the chance to look at the score (only the first two movements) and was surprised at the simplicity of it all.  The actual sound, however, was a lot more complex – that is what having the entire orchestra play the same note will sometimes get you.

The London Symphony is a competent orchestra, although it didn’t sound as crisp as I expected it to.  We have seen Noseda a few times, mostly conducting operas.  He is older than I remember, but as energetic as ever.

The London Symphony Orchestra.  I missed the double basses on the right side of the stage.

It was certainly a great performance.  Incidentally, the tickets were on sale for $25 each (plus a processing fee) which was really a great bargain.  The same program was repeated in Lincoln Center, but we are glad we caught it in Newark.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor; Frank Huang, violin. October 28, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra 1 (Seat T106, $61.50).

Tancszvit (Dance Suites), BB 86a (1923) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1864-67) by Bruch (1838-1920).
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1884-86) by Dvorak (1841-1904).

The headline of the concert was the Dvorak Symphony, but I suspect most people were more interested in hearing the (relatively) new concertmaster Frank Huang play the Bruch violin concerto, so let’s talk about that first.

Most violin students are very familiar with Bruch, with his violin concerto something the students learn at some point, or want to learn.  While not ostensibly so, there are enough challenging elements (glissandos, double stops, spiccatos, ricochet arpeggios, and the like) to make this a virtuoso piece.  There are also many melodies that are easy to remember.

Huang dispatched the piece with ease, looking quite effortless in the process.  As I remarked in my last blog about the New York Philharmonic, performances like this will have people asking “Glenn who?” very soon.  I do appreciate that he chose a piece like this rather than one by Szymanowski (as Dicterow did.)  At the risk of sounding snobbish, I do wonder if he could get his hands on a better violin.  Not that his didn’t sound good, but it lacked the brilliance of a Stradivarius or the fullness of a Guarnerius.

Pablo Heras-Casado applauding Frank Huang at conclusion of Bruch's violin concerto.

The three movements of the concerto are (i) Prelude: Allegro moderato; (ii) Adagio; and (iii) Finale: Allegro energico.  It turns out Bruch is mostly known just for this concerto, and he was among many composers that were competent but mostly forgotten because of A-list composers like Brahms.  There is a great deal of similarity between the opening of the third movement and that of Brahms’ violin concerto.  And the Program Notes points out Bruch’s predates Brahms’s by a good ten years.  Once I recalled Brahms’s opening, I couldn’t get it out of my head.  Another case of listening to one piece of music, and leaving humming the theme of another.

The concert began with the Dance Suite by Bartok, who together with Zoltan Kodaly were among the first ethnomusicologists.  The short (17 minutes per Program Notes) piece consists of six movements, played mostly without pause: Moderato, Allegro molto, Allegro vivace, Molto tranquillo, Comodo, and Finale: Allegro.  The Program Notes contains enough description of the “ethnicity” of each of the movements, and with the tempo markings, the music was easy enough to follow along.  I didn’t quite get why the fifth is described as “so primitive that one can only speak of a primitive peasant character here, and any classification according to nationality must be abandoned.”

There are two prior entries on Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony in this blog, both by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Gilbert and Maazel.  And again I thought I was listening to it for the first time.  Even more embarrassing is I had more insight into the piece the last two times I heard it.

To those of us who don’t get Dvorak’s Seventh, the Program Notes has a quote from Donald Francis Tovey, which I paraphrase as follows.  Everyone should appreciate the greatness of this symphony.  There are three reasons people don’t.  First is this symphony is powerfully tragic, second is a wannabe may quarrel with Dvorak on how music should be written, and third is people often associate Dvorak with his popular works and don’t bother with the more difficult ones.  I don’t think the symphony is tragic, and critiquing the piece never even crossed my mind.  So it has to be I am too lazy.

In any case, I must say the New York Phil sounded better than the New Jersey Symphony.  There is a unity to the sections that is lacking in NJSO, and the brass section certainly sounded much more confident.  Some of the fast runs still came across a bit muddled, though.

We have seen Heras-Casado before, and the orchestra responded well to him in the Bruch and Dvorak pieces.  With Bartok he was acting as a time-keeper most of the time.  He is principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, which I didn’t know was in New York!

The New York Times reviewer probably ran out of adjectives to describe how well Frank Huang played, declaring “the night, though, belonged to Mr. Huang.”  Neither he nor I see “Dvorak’s Seventh” as the headline of the concert.  There was quite a bit of coughing in between movements, I was half-expecting to see him characterizing the audience as “sickly.”  (His colleague did call the NJSO audience old and afraid of the dark!  See my previous post.)

For an 11 am concert we usually would take the train into town.  We decided to drive in today, traffic reports heard along the way were discouraging, but we made it to our usual parking garage in reasonable time.  We ate lunch bought at the food truck before we returned home.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Xian Zhang, conductor; Simon Trpceski, piano. October 27, 2016.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC, Newark, NJ.  Tier 1 (Seat B11, $52).

Program – all Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).
Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Op. 24 (1878).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor Op. 23 (1875).
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 (1888).

This was Zhang’s debut as the music director of the organization, and the all-Tchaikovsky program, while safe and traditional, was heavy weight.  It could be impressive if the pieces were performed brilliantly, but there were also quite a few musical and technical traps that could trip up the artists.

The program started with a rather familiar tune from Eugene Onegin.  Although I had seen the opera and the ballet (using music from the opera), I didn’t recall where the tune came from.  The Program Notes says it takes place during an elegant ball in the home of a wealthy Russian noble.  In any event, the short piece got the concert off to a great start.  The elegance certainly came through, this is a fine orchestra.

Music lovers are familiar with Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto.  The program notes reminded me that it was rejected by several Russian pianists as unplayable, and was thus premiered in the US (Boston.)  The three movements are Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso, Andantino semplice, and Allegro con fuoco.  Our seats in Tier 1 gave us an excellent view of the virtuosity required of the pianist, and the Macedonian pianist Trpceski came through brilliantly.  Nothing fazed him, not double octaves in both hands, not the fast passages, and he made the piano sing.  Mixed in my admiration of his technical skills was admiration of his musicality.

Simon Trpceski and Xian Zhang at conclusion of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Looking back over my blog, I had seen it only once live over the last ten-plus years, performed by Bronfman with the New York Philharmonic, in October, 2013.  While I don’t remember what the performance was like, I have no reason to think today’s performance was in any way not as good as that one.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is often called “fate” for the theme that started the 50-minute long symphony, and used numerous times in all the movements.  This is a difficult piece, and the orchestra was up to the task.  It was an overall exhilarating experience.  And one where I clearly heard a last ray of hope (“fate” played in “almost” major mode) which was quickly dashed.  As an encore, the coda of the last movement was repeated.

The rendition was not without its obvious flaws, though.  The melody that starts the slow movement is always a challenge for the principal horn.  It is a very familiar tune, and every listener expects perfection, which must put a lot of pressure on the artist.  He got all the notes right, the phrasing smooth, but I thought the overall effect was a bit off, and wished that he had given it a stronger punch.  Anne’s view was during some passages the sections were playing independently and didn’t blend together.  And we both agreed that we had heard better with the New York Philharmonic.

I was hoping to be able to say Zhang would make one forget about Lacombe, but I can’t for now.  It may be too much to ask for from a debut performance anyway.  We have tickets to several additional NJSO concerts, and I am hopeful.

Zhang was full of energy as always.  Today she even wore flat-bottom shoes.  Nonetheless, it was only when she stepped off the podium that one realized how small she is.  The orchestra seemed to respond to her well.

The New York Times review was posted a few hours ago.  After characterizing the audience as consisting of retired, old, and afraid of the dark, he described the program as “safe” and wondered where Zhang would take the orchestra.  To that last point I would say for the next several years leave the adventure to the New York Philharmonic, instead work on realizing the potential of the orchestra to be a top-notch one. He did have good things to say about how the pieces were performed.

Today’s concert began at 1:30 pm, our drive to and back from NJPAC was straightforward.  I was a bit disappointed that there were quite a few empty seats in the auditorium, perhaps the rainy day had something to do with it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Metropolitan Opera – Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. October 12, 2016.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony (Seat C107, $92.50).

Story.  The Sultan Mustafa tires of his wife and wants to get rid of her.  He asks Lindoro, someone he captured earlier, to marry her and take her away.  A shipwreck brings ashore Isabella, who is Lindoro’s lover.  Mustafa is taken with Isabella and is willing to be initiated as a Pappataci, which requires him to eat, drink, and keep silent regardless of what is happening.  While that is happening, Lindoro and Isabella sail away, and Mustafa takes Elvira back.

Conductor – James Levine.  Lindoro – Rene Barbera, Isabella – Marianna Pizzolato, Mustafa – Ildar Abdrazakov, Haly – Dwayne Croft, Taddeo – Nicola Alaimo, Elvira -Angela Mannino, Zulma – Rihab Chaieb.

This would be our first encounter with this opera.  The Met last staged this in 2004, and tonight would be the opera’s 74th appearance on the Met stage.

We got into the hall early enough to see Levine wheeled into the conductor’s position.  This season he will be conducting Nabucco and Idomeneo also.  Not the marathon pieces like Tristan or Isolde, but still a rather demanding schedule.

The last opera we saw was Simon Boccanegra, also conducted by Levine.  Levine was equally energetic with the overture, if not more.  The overture is easy to like, with many catchy melodies. I am sure it took a lot of restraint for the audience not to hum along – I know I had to try hard.  Levine maintained this level of intensity throughout.  While this opera is “only” three hours long (with a 30 minute intermission), it is still two acts at about 75 minutes each.  The days of Levine conducting the Ring may be over, but I certainly will not hesitate seeing him perform Mozart, Rossini, or Verdi.

I don’t care very much for the plot, but it serves as a great canvass for beautiful music, even though the story line is a bit contrived.  One exception I take – despite the Program Note giving it high mark – is the last number in Act I where the principals were just mouthing syllables.  That was supposed to emphasize the confusion, but I didn’t think it was necessary, and am quite sure there are other means to do so.  The orchestra performed crisply throughout, and as needed served as a great backdrop for the action on stage.

The main characters are Lindoro (tenor) and Mustafa (bass-bartone) who both put in excellent performances.  We have heard Abdrazakov sing several different roles before (Prince Igor, for example), and he was always good.  His singing today was commendable, although he was a bit weak with the lower notes.

This was our first encounter with Pizzolato.  She started a bit unsteady but improved greatly as the show progressed.

My expectations with comedies are usually modest in the acting department when it comes to comedies, so I wasn’t disappointed at how wooden the stage play was.  It did take some suspension of belief to envision Barbera and Pizzaloto as these young and attractive lovers.  Now there were some comedic and unsuspected moments.  Lindoro trying to throw flowers into a second story and having them stuck on the window sill is one, the use of a small canon to wreck the boat Isabella is on is another (and it was a loud boom.)

Both Elvira and Zulma have minor roles.  The two singers looked so much alike that I often got them confused.  The singer programmed initially as Elvira was Ying Fang.  Even though the role is minor, I am sure it was a big deal to be on the Met stage.

There were a few songs sung by the chorus – as far as I can tell, only the men sang.  Given our seats in the balcony, we could clearly see the hands of another conductor “hiding” in the prompter’s box.  What was surprising is that his (her?) hands were seen even during the singing by the ensemble of 4.  I am quite sure someone with basic musical skills know when to come in with the right pitch for most of these songs.

All said and done, we walked away satisfied with the performance.

Curtain Call.  From Left: Taddeo, Zulma, Lindoro, Isabella, Mustafa, Elvira, and Haly.

Attendance was low.  The Met seems to have trouble selling tickets for these more standard operas; Tristan and Isolde on the other hand, seems to do relatively well.

The New York Times reviewer was generally positive, and she actually found the story hilarious. Per her remark, the staging was from 1973.  It was surprising that some of the scenes (e.g., men mock-whipping women) are still acceptable today.

We got to the city early enough to have dinner at Dan, a Japanese restaurant, and coffee at Europan before the opera.  The drive home was straight forward also.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Gemma New, conductor; Stewart Goodyear, piano. October 8, 2016

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank.  Balcony Center (Seat E108, $38).

Antearoa Overture (1940) by Lilburn (1915-2001).
Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 (1868-69, rev. through 1907) by Grieg (1843-1907).
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 (1902) by Sibelius (1865-1957).

The Program Notes describes this as “a program featuring three faces of nationalism.”  The three composers hailed respectively from New Zealand, Norway, and Finland.  From the “One Minute Notes”: Douglas Lilburn’s piece is a musical portrait of the island nation’s breathtaking coastline; Grieg’s ravishing piece is rich with Norwegian melodies and rhythms; and Sibelius’s symphony pulsates with the warmth of the brief sub-arctic summer.

The word coastline evokes in me images of Mendelssohn’s Scottish pieces or Debussy’s La Mer (I know it means “sea”).  With the Maori word for New Zealand in its title, one could also expect some folk native tunes in the piece.  What I heard was a lot of Vaughan Williams’s influence – Lilburn studied in London with him, after all.  And if the piece describes the coastline, it would appear it was on a very calm day with waves gently lapping against a beach rather than a rugged coastline during a stormy night.  Nonetheless, the short piece was performed with a clarity that would rival many better known orchestras.

Grieg premiered his own piano concerto in 1869, when he was 25.  He continued to tinker with the orchestration throughout his life, the 1906-07 version was heard tonight.  The movements are: Allegro molto moderato, Adagio, and Allegro moderato molto e marcato.  This concerto, together with Liszt’s first, were among the few I really liked when I was very young (teens to early twenties.)  Melodies, virtuosity, and a story combined to make these concertos exciting to listen to.  Decades later, I still look forward to listening to them.

Goodyear looked very young (he was a classmate of our friend’s daughter, so in his 30s), and he certainly put in an exhilarating virtuoso performance.  And the melodies sounded as pleasant as ever.  However, I didn’t get the story he was trying to tell.  It was more on the order of “let’s get through these dull intervening passages to get to the next highlight.”  Nonetheless, the melodies and virtuosity made this an overall exciting performance.

In the writeup on an earlier performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony, I marveled at how complicated the tempo markings were.  The NJSO annotator made the four movements simple: Allegretto; Andante ma rubato; Vivacissimo; and Finale: Allegro moderato.  A bit over-simplified, I think, as there were significant tempo changes within the individual movements.

As with the Grieg piece, this symphony contains lots of difficult passages and pleasant folk-sounding melodies.  One of the most attractive themes appears towards the end where the full melody was teased out after many attempts.  The orchestra tackled the technical aspects well.  However, I am similarly disappointed in that in between the high points it was wandering aimlessly.  What dismayed me the most was the attempts at the final melody were all disjoint: they were played without anticipating what was to come.

Curtain Call after the Grieg Piano Concerto.

When I first started going to NJSO performances regularly I remarked that this was a Jekyll-and-Hyde orchestra, doing well under Lacombe but not so well with other conductors.  I just realized that I hadn’t been wondering about that for a while, and that speaks to the great improvements they have made.  I am not quite back to that view yet, but worry a bit if this will become the norm again.

Several friends took advantage of the sale (ticket prices could be as low as $20), but the balcony was not even 20% filled.  One would think there are more classical music listeners in this part of New Jersey.

Gemma New had been the associate conductor of NJSO for quite a few years.  I assume her departure from the organization is to make room for Zhang to pick an assistant.  I think the same thing happened to Zhang when Maazel left the New York Philharmonic.

We had dinner at church so we could listen to some of the reports on short-term missions.  Concerts in Red Bank and New Brunswick are very convenient for us.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Christopher Martin, trumpet; Lang Lang, piano. October 7, 2016.

Mysteries of the Macabre, for Trumpet and Orchestra (1974-77/1992) by Ligeti (1923-2006).
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, BB 114 (1936) by Bartok (1881-1945).

Le Grand Macabre was an opera written by Gyorgy Ligeti, based on a play by Michel de Ghelderode - which was in turn inspired by the paintings of the 16th century painter Pieter Breughel and his forebear Hieronymus Bosch.  The absurdist approach endeavors to answer the questions of “what will happen if our world ends soon” with “things would pretty much stay the same.”  While preparing for a concert performance, the coloratura soprano singing the role of Police Chief fell ill and couldn’t perform.  Since there was no understudy, the conductor Howarth – also a trumpet player – decided to have the trumpet as a fill-in.  It worked, and eventually three principal arias were arranged by Howarth into a piece for the trumpet and piano, which was further arranged into what we heard today.

The concert began with Gilbert coming out by himself, seemingly looking for the trumpeter.  At first I thought he was caught up in traffic, which was bad today.  Eventually I realized this was all part of the comedy of the piece.  And it was a comedic piece, as instruments there were crumbling newsprint, whistle, and other non-traditional percussion instruments. (Some of the other non-conventional instruments listed: police whistle, slide whistle, signal pipe, guero, and sandpaper.) Spoken words and shouts by the conductor, soloist, and orchestra members were thrown in for good measure.  There were only three violins as far as we could tell.

Martin is the new trumpet section principal in the orchestra, and he did a remarkable job with the music.  Overall, however, as gallows humor the piece sounded more humor than gallows.

Christopher Martin is the new Principal Horn of the Orchestra.

Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta was commissioned by the billionaire philanthropist Paul Sacher, who also conducted its premiere by the Basel Chamber Orchestra.  Per the Playbill, the piece is a good example of the precision of Bartok’s music, and illustrates it with the principal line used in the fugue of the first movement.  Fair enough: I was able to follow how the music was developed using that particular “melody.”  Unfortunately, there were no corresponding cheat sheets for the other movements, and I was reduced to simply listening to the music, which was quite interesting.  I do wish the annotator had spent more print on the music itself.

The 31-minute duration (per Playbill) piece consists of four movements: Andante tranquillo, Allegro, Adagio, and Allegro molto.  There were two string sections, each with first and second violins, violas, cellos, and basses.  The composer also had a precise plan for how the orchestra members were to be seated.  However, Gilbert seemed to have taken some liberty with those instructions.

These two pieces are heavy duty enough that they could form the backbone of a concert program.  However, the headline for the evening was Lang Lang playing Beethoven, and is undoubtedly the reason why the concert was sold out.

Lang Lang was worth his top billing.  Beethoven’s concertos are warhorses of the concert repertoire, and the fourth is no exception.  Indeed, a search of my blog returned numerous performances, including ones by Bronfman, Watts, Ax, and Ohlsson. The adjectives I would use to describe these performances include smooth, exciting, and compelling.  Lang’s performance was all that, but I would add the word “fresh.”  I don’t necessarily think everything he did was a better choice, but it was an excellent and immensely enjoyable experience to sit through this rendition.  Lang played Beethoven’s cadenzas, and evidently there are two versions for the first one, and the longer version was used tonight.

Curtain Call after Performance of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto.

It was somewhat of a surprise to see Lang performing a piece that is not as virtuoso as what he typically did in the past.  Later this season Trifonov will be playing Mozart.  Perhaps they are out to prove they are more than just great technicians, but great musicians as well?

Here is a October 10 review in the New York Times.  Despite the minor digs at the various pieces, the reviewer was generally positive, describing Martin, Lang, and Gilbert using terms such as "impeccable musicians," "ravishing," and "excellent."

Today was a Friday, and we couldn’t make up our mind whether we should drive in or take the train.  Our decision resulted in one of the longest drives (over 2 hours).  Even though we left at around 5:15 pm, we only had time to buy a sandwich at the CafĂ©.  The good thing was we didn’t have to rush to the Penn Station afterwards, instead we bought street food and ate it at Richard Tucker Square.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Magdalena Kozena, mezzo-soprano. October 1, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat T105, $82.50).

Les Nuits d’ete (The Summer Nights), Op. 7 (1840-41; orch. 1843, 1855, 1856) by Berlioz (1803-69).
Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite, Op. 35 (1888) by Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).

When one thinks of “summer nights,” various images would come to mind.  They can range from the singing of nightingales, or a bright evening sky, or perhaps a severe thunderstorm.  It took someone like Berlioz to make this about frailty, death, cemetery, and lament.  I didn’t get to read the lyrics until the program was underway, and was quite unprepared for how dark the lyrics were after the first song (Villanelle).  The other songs in this collection are Le Spectre de la rose (The Specter of the Rose); Sur les lagunes: Lamento (On the Lagoons: Lament); Absence; Au cimetiere: Clair de lune (In the Cemetery: Moonlight); and L’ile inconnue (The Unknown Island.)

After reconciling with the fact that this was going to be a dark composition – which happened around the third song – I began to appreciate the music.  The reduced-size orchestra provided a great companion to the soloist.  While I do not know French, the projected surtitles helped my appreciation of the mood tremendously.

Kozena had a strong voice.  Every now and then it sounded a bit on the coarse side, but that just added to the grittiness of the prose.  I enjoyed her singing.

The composition was originally written for voice and piano, and song-by-song orchestrated by Berlioz, starting with Absence.  He modified the songs in other ways as well, including the transposition of two of them: “Le Spectre de la rose” by a minor third, and “Sur les lagunes” by a whole step.

“Absence” was first introduced to the New York Philharmonic by Leopold Damrosch in 1877, together with other works heard in New York for the first time.  The concert wasn’t a box office success, and Damrosch was not invited back.  Perhaps out of spite, Damrosch founded the New York Symphony in in 1878.  After 50 years, the New York Symphony, under the direction of Leopold’s son Walter, would merge with the New York Philharmonic.  Walter was also instrumental in convincing Andrew Carnegie to build Carnegie Hall.

While Scheherazade is probably known to most people, and some of the tunes in it are easily hummable, it is not programmed that frequently in live concerts.  Since I started my blog, this was only my second encounter with the piece.  The four movements are (i) Largo e maestosos – Allegro non troppo; (ii) Lento – Andantino; (iii) Andantino quasi allegretto; and (iv) Allegro molto.  Before it became unfashionable to do so, they also had descriptive titles: (i) The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship; (ii) The Story of the Kalander Prince; (iii) The Young Prince and Princess; and (iv) Festival at Baghdad, the Sea.

It was an enjoyable performance, the mood swung from serene to tempestuous, and the orchestra gave the music its all.  The Program Notes says Rimsky-Korsakov thought it would be sufficient that the listener “carries away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and fairy-tale wonders …”  That was a relatively low bar.

The soloist violin got quite a bit of workout as the protagonist, and some of the passages were quite challenging.  There were other solo passages from various members of the orchestra also.  Interestingly, only Frank Huang got the billing in the Program.

The audience applauded enthusiastically afterwards, which the orchestra and Gilbert deserved.

Curtain Call after Scheherazade.

A few observations.  First is that Gilbert went back to his baton, which looked more natural. The other was if Huang continues to perform the way he did, people would soon forget about Dicterow.  Lastly, the amount of coughing between movements was close to unbearable.  Perhaps free cough drops should be more readily available at the doors?

We stopped by Jersey City before driving into New York.  Dinner was at Columbus Empire Szechuan which we hadn’t been to for a while.