Tuesday, November 29, 2016

New Jersey Symphony – Hans Graf, conductor; Inon Barnatan, piano. November 27, 2016.

State Theatre, New Brunswick, NJ.  Balcony (Seat G119, $37).

The Bartered Bride Overture (1863-64) by Smetana (1824-1884).
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 (1785) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61 (1845-46) by Schumann (1810-1856).

This is a program that contains two popular pieces, and one that is not heard often.

Since I had some free time on my hands on Saturday, I got to look at the YouTube videos together with the music as a preparation for this concert.

The Bartered Bride was composed by Bedrich Smetana partly because of criticism that till then there was not much music with a Czech character.  There is of course a story behind this comic opera, but the overture works very well by itself.  The many hummable tunes in the 7-minute piece can be passed off as Czech melodies, but are not actual folk tunes.  (I got this from the online notes at the NJ Symphony website.)

I was surprised at how fast the music goes in the YouTube video I looked at, and wondered how the NJSO would handle it, especially with a guest conductor.  Turns out I needn’t worry, the orchestra did very well on the precision front.  One of those days I won’t need to sit on the edge of my seat.

Today’s piano concerto must be one of the more familiar Mozart concertos, due mainly to the lovely second movement (Madigan’s theme).  The movement is quite simple, but could be heart-breaking in the hands of the right musicians.  The downside is many have a mental picture of how this should be played, and would be disappointed if it isn’t performed that particular way.

Alas, today’s performance falls into the second category.  The overall effect was more disjoint than the “crisp and precise” I like.  And the second movement was particularly disappointing.  For the first movement Barnatan played a cadenza he composed, perhaps it showcased his composition and virtuosic skills, my overall reaction is a “why bother.”  The three movements are Allegro maestoso, Andante, and Allegro vivace assai.

Hans Graf and Inon Barnatan after the Mozart concerto.

In my preparation for the concert I also listened to the Schumann symphony.  When the orchestra started playing, I was very disappointed at how little of the music I remembered, even those passages that presented particular challenges (e.g., alternating between triple and double time.) And even the number of movements wasn’t what I remembered: four instead of five.  And why didn’t they refer to this as the “Rhenish” in the program?  Eventually I found out both to my relief and dismay that what I prepared was Symphony No. 3 instead of this one.

After I settled down and began to listen to the music, I found it to be easier to grasp than No. 3, and it was quite enjoyable.  Under the precise baton of Graf, the orchestra played with great dynamics and sound.  The movements are (i) Sostenuto assai- Allegro ma non troppo; (ii) Scherzo: Allegro vivace; (iii) Adagio espressivo; and (iv) Allegro molto vivace.

The relatively short program totaled about 70 minutes of music.  Attendance in the balcony section was quite poor.  Surprisingly the ushers didn’t let people in the rear take an empty seat in the front.  The entire row in front of us was empty.  CS cane with us and bought a ticket for $20 at the door; he said his seat in the last row wasn’t that bad.

On our way dropping off CS at his house, we stopped by this small Chinese restaurant in Marlboro for an early dinner.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Ivan Fischer, conductor; Nikolaj Znaider, violin. November 23, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat X104, $62.50).

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 (1889) by Dvorak (1841-1904).

The two pieces on this program are popular pieces in the concert repertoire.  Ivan Fischer is well-known for founding the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and we had heard Znaider once before.

It is close to obligatory for me to say we heard this multiple times on a record with Oistrakh as the soloist in the 70s.  On reason was our limited collection of records; also, that it was a great recording helped.  I am sure my memory of the exact performance has faded, yet there is a way I like how this is played.

One characteristic I looked for is structure in this concerto which weaves beautifully together many scales and arpeggios.  Znaider violated this on many occasions, but in refreshing ways.  The sound of his violin was brilliant, for a long time I thought it was a Strad (it is a Guarnerius.)  I had heard Znaider perform once before, in 2007, and made the same remark about the instrument.  I was seated in the First Tier Rear Box section then, so the sound wasn’t an artifact of the location.

Znaider did well overall, handling the difficult piece with ease.  However, there were moments that he probably lost his concentration, resulting in slight intonation problems.  It is interesting to contrast how Znaider did compared to James Ehnes, who performed the same piece at the beginning of the year.  Ehnes would be more along the line of Oistrakh that I remember.

Znaider and Fischer after performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto.

I have heard Dvorak’s Eighth several times before, and what jumps to mind is the results seemed to be hit or miss – sometimes enjoyable, sometimes not so much.  Today’s is definitely in the “hit” category, so much so that I wondered how anyone could botch it.  Incidentally, one of the prior enjoyable performances was by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, again conducted by Fischer.  And there were two occasions with mediocre results with the New York Philharmonic, so the conductor matters.

The orchestra seating was rearranged, the most obvious changes were the use of risers, and the basses were at the top.

We sat next to a person who also keeps a blog.  We had a good chat during intermission.  He told me he goes to about 300 concerts a year, which is quite remarkable.

We again bought tickets to this concert at a discount.  The auditorium was quite full, which was a good sign.

We stopped by Hoboken, parked our car in Ellie’s garage, and then took public transportation.  Dinner was at Pret-a-Manger near Penn Station.  We drove back home after collecting our car.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

New York Philharmonic – Jaap van Zweden, conductor; Cynthia Phelps, violin. November 18, 2016.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra Center (Seat BB110, $50.50).

Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin (1848) by Wagner (1813-83).
Unearth, Release (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra) (2016) by Adolphe (b. 1988).
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877/1878) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).

There are two major reasons to attend this concert: van Zweden is conducting, and a viola concerto written by a young musician.  When we did the subscription during the summer, we avoided the weeks around Thanksgiving; so when discounted tickets became available, and we were sure we would be in town, we bought tickets to this event.

I have yet to see the opera Lohengrin, and know very little about it.  Evidently he is the son of Parsifal and the plot revolves around his defending the honor of Elsa, wrongly accused of murder.  Premiered in 1850 (with Liszt conducting), it predates Parsifal by several years.  The Program Notes talks glowingly of the opera, calling it “may be the most sheerly gorgeous of Wagner’s operas,” and proceeds to describe the structure of the introduction.  All I can say is this 8-minute piece is quite complicated and sounds nice.

Julia Adolphe is not quite 30 years old, so to have a full symphonic work performed at Lincoln Center is no small feat by any standard.  She graduated from Cornell (with Robert Stucky among her teachers) and is now going for her doctorate at USC.  I still don’t understand why there is a need for titles in these modern works, but at least this one is relatively straightforward.  The three movements of this 20-minute work are: I. Captive Voices; II. Surface Tension; and III. Embracing Mist; I don’t know how they mesh with “Unearth, Release.”  Adolphe has the following description of her composition: The work reveals a transformation from sinking to swimming to floating, from drowning in uncertainty toward embracing ambiguity.

I heard Phelps – the Philharmonic’s Principal Viola – performed as a soloist once, and all I remember was I had trouble picking up the soloist’s lines.  It worked much better today, no doubt due to the use of a smaller orchestra (still sizable) and having the orchestra stay silent or quiet when the solo viola is playing.  I don’t know what to expect of a viola concerto, this one definitely is less of a show-off than a highlight of the characteristics of the instrument.  While the music didn’t have me scratching my head, I didn’t quite get what it was trying to say either.  In any case, I can’t picture how “drowning in uncertainty” would sound differently from “embracing ambiguity.”

Tchaikovsky’s symphonies seem to be back in vogue the last several years; which is fine with me as I enjoy his romanticism.  While Symphony No. 4 is not as popular as his 5th or the Pathetique, it bears all the characteristics of a Tchaikovsky composition.  Per my blog, I heard this a few years ago performed by the Philharmonic (Gilbert conducting) and at the end of last season by New Jersey Symphony (Zhang conducting).  Today I draw the same conclusion: NJSO still has a ways to go.  For instance, the last movement is marked “allegro con fuoco,” and most orchestras take it as quickly as they are able.  With all the sixteenth notes, it takes a great orchestra to do it with precision.  NJSO can (per my notes,) but certainly didn’t garner as much excitement as today’s performance.

Van Zweden seemed to be able to extract a great deal from the orchestra, which bodes well for his tenure with the organization (he is director-designate for next season, and director after that.)

Julia Adolphe, Cynthia Phelps, and Jaap van Zweden after the performance of Adophe's "Unearth, Release."

The New YorkTimes review contains a detailed account of the Adolphe piece.  It also describes the Lohengrin piece as “a radiant account.”  The reviewer is not as complimentary with the Tchaikovsky though, calling the last movement “more frenzied than festive.”

We stayed at Ellie’s new place in Hoboken last night, and took public transportation in for this 2 pm concert (per New York Times, for people afraid of the dark.)  We had lunch at a Korean restaurant close to the Penn Station.  We had dinner with Ellie and family before returning to South Amboy.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Metropolitan Opera – Janacek’s Jenufa. November 9, 2016.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat BB32, $25).

Story.  Jenufa is in love with Steva and is pregnant with his child.  Steva’s half brother Laca also loves Jenufa, who slashes her face.  Jenufa’s stepmother Kostelnicka hides Jenufa until the boy is born.  Believing the baby will lead a difficult life and bring shame to the family, XXX kills the baby.  Steva rejects Jenufa because of her disfigurement, but Laca still wants to marry her.  At the wedding the frozen body of the baby is found.  Thinking that Jenufa is the murderer, the villagers want to stone her to death.  Kostelnicka steps in to confess and is led away.  Jenufa wants to cancel the wedding but Laca reaffirms his love.

Conductor – David Robertson.  Jenufa – Oksana Dyka, Kostelnicka – Karita Mattila, Grandmother Buryja – Hanna Schwarz, Laca – Daniel Brenna, Steva – Joseph Kaiser.

The story of the opera is based on a play.  For whatever reason, Janacek cut out enough parts of the story, and the result a plot where the relationships among the characters are difficult to understand.  The Program Notes describes some of the missing links, and that helped considerably. But I can’t imagine what it was for those who didn’t get to read the Notes in advance.  As it was I got lost quite often.

Perhaps because of that, I couldn’t get fully engaged with the overall plot of the opera.  On the other hand, there were many emotion-filled moments in this play about ordinary people (putting aside the part about drowning the baby, and Kostelnicka means some kind of church official.)  These were undoubtedly helped by the great singing of all the major characters.  I saw Dyka as Yaroslavna in Borodin’s Prince Igor in March, 2014.  Tonight she sang with the same strong voice, but there was more emotion to her than my last encounter (per my blog entry, anyway.)  Mattila as Kostelnicka had a lot of singing to do also, and she did very well.  Indeed, she had a long soliloquy at the beginning of Act II which she pulled off engagingly.  As I type this three days later, I felt she conveyed her lines better than Dyka hers.  This was last staged at the Met about 10 years ago, and Mattila sang the role of Jenufa.

I wrote recently that Bartok and Kodaly were the first ethnomusicologists.  To their ranks one must add Janacek.  Although the opera sounded contemporary, there were enough melodies in it to give it strong folk favor (evidently Czech in this case, but I certainly can’t place it.)  The orchestra did its part well.  There were a couple of passages sung by Jenufa that were accompanied by excellent violin and viola solos.  The chorus didn’t do much singing, except at the beginning and the end.

The set is a carryover from what was used 10 years ago.  The foreground depicts the inside of a house with two walls converging into an opening.  For Act 1 the background is a wheat (or corn) field; for Act 2 the walls closed on each other to denote the house where Jenufa hid during her pregnancy, but opened up towards the end to show snow falling, there is also a large boulder inside the room, perhaps for symbolism; for Act 3 the background becomes the village.  The dresses tend to be basic colors – black and gray mostly.  Simple, but adequate.

Curtain Call with David Robertson taking a bow.

While I was assigned seat BB32, the entire row in front of me was empty, so I saw the opera seated in AA2 (one price level up.)  It had a great view of the stage, and the acoustics was good.  Only downside was I could see only the conductor and the tip of the harp.  Robertson by the way kept great control throughout, and led with precision a well-executed performance.

The New YorkTimes review raves about Mattila, but isn’t as kind towards Dyka, calling her singing “acidic” and presence “awkward.”  There was barely any mention of Robertson or the orchestra.  My puzzlement is why was she barefeet for two of the three acts?  Everyone else seemed to be able to afford shoes.

The opera is definitely worth seeing again.

I took the train up and had pizza for dinner around 70th Street.  The opera ended at around 11:15 pm, so I couldn't make the 11:18 pm train back to South Amboy.  The 12:05 train was delayed because of work on the tracks, so it was after 1:30 am that I got home.

Monday, November 07, 2016

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Xian Zhang, conductor; Pedja Muzijevic, piano; Eric Wyrick, violin; Jonathan Spitz, cello. November 5, 2016.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC.  Grand Tier (Seat E7, $20).

Adagio from Piano Trio No. 40 in F-sharp Minor, Hob. XV:26 (1794 or 1795) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56 (1804) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 102 in B-flat Major, Hob. I: 102 (1794) by Haydn.
Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59 (1910) by Strauss (1864-1949).

I learned something new!  I found out “Hob” refers to the cataloging of Haydn’s compositions by Anthony van Hoboken who designed each genre by a roman numeral.  Thus I refers to the 106 symphonies (numbered to 104), and XV Trios for Piano, Violin or Flute and Cello.

The other interesting fact is the theme from the adagio movement of the Trio was reused by Haydn in Symphony No. 102.  The Program Notes describes the trio as a piece that Haydn would play with his mistress (I wonder who played the cello), and it was meant to be a surprise for her when the Symphony was first performed, as the Trio had not been published yet.

I bought the tickets on sale, and figured the Grand Tier should provide good acoustics.  The view of the stage was great, but the acoustics was poor, probably because the seats were underneath Tier 1.  The piano came through reasonably okay, but the two strings sounded very weak.

It got a bit better with the Triple Concerto, but I still had to strain to hear the cello and the violin.

I am reasonably familiar with this work of Beethoven, and heard it as Glenn Dicterow’s farewell concert when he retired as New York Phil’s concertmaster.  I have listened to it on my iPod quite a few times – Oistrakh, Richter & Rostropovich were the performers, with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.  The piece sounded simple for Beethoven.  Before the concert I read through the music while listening to the YouTube performance by Perlman, Ma, and Barenboim, who also did the conducting.  It was a lot more complicated than I thought, requiring great coordination.  With that in mind, I appreciated tonight’s performance.  While things were not perfect, especially with intonation (both strings), that they managed to put it together nicely was a great accomplishment.  Also, both string players had music in front of them, but Muzijevic did it without music.

After intermission we moved up three rows to seats that were in the open.  And the sound was much better.  For the record, I am not complaining about the seats we got for $20 each.

Symphony No. 102 is one of Haydn’s London symphonies, and consists of four movements: Largo – Vivace; Adagio; Menuet: Allegro; and Presto.  My appreciation of Haydn is somewhat like that of Mozart: I can’t really tell a great performance from a good one.  Tonight’s was at least good, of that I’m sure.  While the second movement bore some resemblance to the Adagio from the earlier Piano Trio, I couldn’t really say they were the same.

It is not entirely clear to me why a program billed as “Zhang conducts Beethoven & Haydn” would include a piece by Strauss, but that was how the program concluded.

We have seen Der Rosenkavalier once at the Met, and has heard several performance sof the Suite, with Rodzinski as the likely arranger.  The Program Notes contains a good description of the parts that make up the 22-minute piece.

This concert was preceded by a reception and followed by a dinner, serving as a welcoming party for NJSO’s new conductor.  There were quite a few people at the reception (which cost a couple of hundred dollars) and many tables were set up for the dinner.

Reception at the foyer before the concert began.

I must say I don’t understand the programming for tonight.  Not so much how it hangs together musically (and it does to a great extent), but why a somewhat tepid program for such a public event.  While the pieces are enjoyable, I am sure the overall concert will be forgotten in most people’s minds.  Again, I hope things will improve.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Metropolitan Opera – Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. November 2, 2016.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. Balcony (Seat C109, $110.50).

Story.  This is a retelling of the well-known William Tell story with a romantic twist thrown in.  The Swiss are rebelling against their Austrian occupiers (Habsburgs).  Leuthold, a Swiss, kills one of the Austrians and is pursued by Gesler’s troops.  William Tell hides him by taking him across Lake Lucerne.  When Metcthal refuses to give up their whereabouts, Rodolphe has him arrested and orders the men to raze the village.  In the town of Altdorf, Gesler forces the Swiss to commemorate the 100-year occupation by paying homage to his hat raised on a pole and dancing till they collapse.  When Tell refuses to do so, Gesler threatens to kill both him and his son Jemmy unless Tell shoots an apple off Jemmy’s head, despite Tell kneeling down before him.  Tell successfully does that, and when asked why there is a second arrow, he says it is meant for Gesler if he misses the apple.  Gesler has him arrested. Jemmy is provided safe haven by Gesler’s sister Mathilde and subsequently reunited with his mother Hedwige.  A storm hits as Tell is being transported across Lake Lucerne, so his shackles are removed for him to steer the ship.  As the boat nears shore, he leaps off and is met by the rebels who are now properly armed.  Jemmy hands Tell his crossbow which he then uses to kill Gesler.  The Austrians are defeated and Altdorf is liberated.

The romantic twist involves Metcthal’s son Arnold and Gesler’s sister Mathilde.  Arnold first joins the Austrian, but decides to switch sides after he finds out about Metcthal’s death.  Mathilde decides to join the Austrians because of her brother’s cruelty towards the Swiss.  The two thus find themselves on the same side at the end of the opera.

Conductor – Fabio Luisi.  Guillaume Tell – Gerald Finley; Hedwige, his wife – Maria Zifchak; Jemmy, their son – Janai Brugger; Melcthal – Kwanghul Youn; Arnold – John Osborn; Amthilde – Marina Rebeka; Gesler – John Relyea.

This was part of the series we bought for this season, and I didn’t pay much attention to the opera until the day before.  All I knew were the famous overture (including the part used to introduce the Lone Ranger series) and the “fact” that William Tell shot the apple off his son’s head.  Turns out this was the last of Rossini’s operas, written when he was 37, and at over 4 ½ hours (with two intermissions) is his longest.  The opera was premiered in Paris, in French, which was also used in today’s performance.  It has not been very popular with the Met, tonight’s performance being the 36th, and the last series was in 1931.

This is a new production.  The scenery was disappointingly simple.  There were a few rocks, some large, some small, that were moved on and off stage at different times.  There is a walkway that we could see only the bottom of from our balcony seats, I wasn’t sure what it was until it was lowered in the last Act (it was a ship).  To represent the town square there were a few skeletal buildings that Anne said represented chalets.  There was a lot of mention of a lake, represented by a blue background with wavy strokes painted on it.  Also, there were a few lighted columns that I don’t get.  And the famous scene where Tell shots the apple?  The best I can tell is in a flash the apple disappears from Jemmy’s head.  A production worthy of the New York City Opera, and NYCO may rightfully consider this an insult.  I usually don’t care much about scenery, but this was a bit too amateurish.

I have no idea how the Swiss dressed around the 14th Century, but doubt very much everyone wore long skirts made of white linen (men and women).  And the Austrians all wore black.  Reminds me of a Star Wars episode where it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad.  True to the concept, Mathilde started with a dark dress but ended the opera in a white one.  Also, there was no effort in trying to make Jemmy look like a boy, although it became less of an issue as the opera progressed – William Tell could well be shooting an apple off her daughter’s head.

The Program Notes contains phrases like “visual spectacle,” “grandeur of its sets,” “historical accuracy,” “mountain scenery of Switzerland,” and “illusory effects which astonished all who saw them.”  If I had read this before the opera, my disappointment would have been profound.  As it is, I wonder if the writer ever saw this production, or if he was being sarcastic.

Operas composed during that period all have ballet scenes, both expected as part of the opera form and so the singers have a chance to rest their voices.  The one in Act III where the Swiss were forced to pay homage to Gesler stood out, for its grotesqueness.  That may be the actual intent, but 15 minutes (estimate) of it is too much.  The ballet dancers all danced well, and I am sure the choreographer could have designed a pleasant experience for the audience while getting the point across.  As it was, I am sure many in the audience were relieved when it was over.

The story was unnecessarily complicated by the many different characters.  Ruodi, Rodolphe, Walter Furst, and others all have substantial singing roles, but their presence – especially since they are dressed similarly – just made a plot that should be straightforward complex.  I did doze off a bit during the first Act.

The music did a lot to make this opera a worthwhile experience.  It started with the overture.  Yes, it is a familiar one that lends itself readily to foot-stomping; but few could do it as well as tonight’s orchestra.  As with familiar pieces, I had a preconception how it should be performed, and appreciated how Luisi did it.  The orchestra had “solo” passages every now and then, and each time reinforced how excellent it was.

The singing was uniformly great, and that would include the “secondary” characters I mentioned above.  Particularly noteworthy was that of Rebeka, as Mathilde she was splendid, making the whole thing seem effortless.  Youn as Metcthal also did well, but the character was killed early on so he only had limited lines.  Relyea as Gesler was solid.  The chorus got a great workout in this opera, and they came through splendidly – despite my missing this 12-part chorus.

I do question if the opera needs to be this long.  Certainly many sections can be tightened – the ballet, the three cantons showing up, for example.  On the cantons, it was supposed to be a masterful passage, each canton would have four parts, resulting in a twelve-part chorus at the end.  (Can’t all be different notes, or we have every note in the chromatic scale.)  I didn’t catch that, not having read the Program beforehand.

Curtain Call.

The New YorkTimes review also praised the music, the singers, and the chorus, but wasn’t so keen on the sets or the costumes.  If one wants to learn all the terms used in vocal music, there is a ton in the review.  The review also contains a video clip of Pierre Audi, in charge of production.  He gave some insight into the production design; for instance, the vertical columns depicted trees in a forest.

We were seated in the balcony, and it and family circle were reasonably full, which was a good thing.

The opera started at 6:30 pm, so we left a little after 4 pm.  On the way back there were some slight traffic jams, even though it was around midnight.