Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Andrew Manze, conductor; Thomas Zehetmair, violin. August 11, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat V109, $50).

Pre-Concert Recital
Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”) (1797) by Beethoven (1770-1927).  Vikingur Olafsson, pinao.

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) by Beethoven.
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 (1788) by Mozart (1756-1791).

The auditorium was quite full when we walked into it for the recital a few minutes before 6:30 pm, which was not expected.  Perhaps it also demonstrated the enthusiasm of the audience for these summer concerts.

Pathetique is a well-known sonata, and I certain enjoy listening to it.  Today was no exception.  The sound was crisp, the parts distinct, and contrast superb.  I do wish the pianist had approached this in a more mechanical way.  Beethoven’s music speaks for itself, there is really no need to exaggerate the fast and slow, in my opinion.

Given he took over from Martin Frost the clarinetist the music directorship of a Swedish music festival, I was surprised at how youthful the Icelandic pianist looked.  He was born in 1984, making him 33.

Somehow the Beethoven Violin Concerto is in vogue in recent years; I heard recent performances by James Ehnes, Nikolaj Znaider, and Pinchus Zuckerman.  Today’s performance unfortunately didn’t measure up to any of them.

The problem again was the soloist was trying to take too much liberty with what Beethoven intended (of course no one knows, but the score is a pretty good indication.)  Actually, it was close to disastrous when he first came in with the octaves, the sound was so poor that my first reaction was did he forget to put resin on the bow.  (To be fair, the sound improved as the performance continued.)  He was trying to start really soft and then build up the volume, it sounded tentative instead.  Throughout the concerto he made attempts to put his interpretation on the music, which were mostly ineffective.  The sound of the violin didn’t have the brilliance of a Stradivarius or the subtlety of a Guarnerius, although my ears could fail me.

The cadenzas were different from the ones usually performed with this concerto. Turns out Beethoven arranged this concerto for the piano as the soloist (first I heard of it), and wrote a cadenza for the arrangement.  The piano cadenzas were then arranged by Wolfgang Schnedierhan for the violin.  To me they mostly highlighted some of the techniques not demonstrated in the concerto proper (harmonics play a prominent role, for instance), but oftentimes it was difficult to see how they relate to the concerto proper.  Anne thought they were easier than the usual ones, although I am sure Zehetmair would have no trouble with them.

Zehetmair taking a bow as Manze looks on after the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

To compound my disappointment, the orchestra wasn’t at its top form either.  The horn had problems when it came in at the beginning of the slow movement.  Not the end of the world, but not the mark of a great orchestra either.

The audience was enthusiastic in its applause.  Zehetmair played an encore; I didn't get the title, and have no recollection of it a few days after listening to it.

Perhaps because of the Beethoven piece, I began to notice problems with the orchestra during the Mozart symphony.  One of the earliest problems I had with the MM Festival Orchestra was I could hear the individual players in the violin sections.  The problem had mostly disappeared in recent years, a testament to how the musicianship of the ensemble has improved.  Today some of that came back.

Mozart’s 40th Symphony is well-known, and usually enjoyable.  Many of the passages get repeated (especially the middle movements), but it felt longer than usual.  Again I attribute that to the quality of the performance.

Manze was his usual dependable self, conducting with quite a bit of vigor.

I do need to qualify all my comments with this being an enjoyable evening.  We had an early dinner at East Szechuan with Vivian and her parents, who were visiting from Hong Kong.  And the concert was of good quality.  At their best, a MM concert can rival that of a top orchestra, today they weren’t quite there.

Anne and I stopped by Hoboken to drop off something, so we got to New York at around 4:30 pm.  I made two separate purchases on Goldstar.com, but they were considerate enough to put all of us in the same row, which is great.  Parking was surprisingly easy for a summer Friday afternoon.  There were no problems coming back either, Anne and I did get some street food before we headed back.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Argus Quartet. July 26, 2017.

Princeton Chapel, Princeton University, New Jersey.  (Free)

String Quartet Op. 76 No. 5 by Haydn (1732-1809).
Satellites (2015) by Knox (b. 1956).
String Quartet No 15, Op. 132 by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Quartet Members
Jason Issokson, violin; Clara Kim, violin; Dana Kelley, viola; Joann Whang, cello.

The day before the concert, we got a call from PUSCC that the venue would be changed from Richardson Auditorium to the Princeton Chapel.  When the Series’s Artisti Director Melissa Bohl spoke at the beginning of the concert, she explained that a fire at the auditorium made the change of venue necessary.

The chapel is impressive, and quite large.  Attendance was quite good, filling a great part of the auditorium.  But alas, the place may be right for organ music – and we see a large organ – but for chamber music it doesn’t work.  There is simply too much echo in the cavernous hall, you can hear the reverb seconds (well, some exaggeration) after the playing stops.  While we got to the Chapel close to 30 minutes before concert start, we were about 15 rows from the stage, and could barely see the musicians.

I listened to the Haydn quartet quite a few times before the concert, so I had no trouble following along, even with the echo.  It was a pleasant start to the evening.  The movements are (i) Allegretto; (ii) Largo: Cantabile e mesto; (iii) Menuet: Allegro – Trio; and (iv) Finale: Presto.

The violist talked about the next composition.  Unfortunately she wasn’t miked up, and I could hear only part of what she was saying with my hands cupped behind my ears.  The first movement is Geostationary, Garth Knox wanted to describe geosynchronous satellites, they look stationary to someone on the ground, but both the satellite and the earth are moving at incredible speeds through space. Spectral sunrise describes what astronauts see while at the International Space Station.  One would think in this context “dimensions” would be along the lines of the grand unification theory where 11 dimensions are used.  Instead here they refer the different ways the bow can be used: across the strings, up and down, in circular motion, et.

It is always interesting to see how these ideas get realized in the actual composition.  One could argue, in this case, with some degree of success.  The question that remains, though, is: why?  From what I can remember of the piece, the first movement was indeed chaotic, but it didn’t go anywhere – that was perhaps the idea.  The second movement evokes Strauss’s Sunrise in Also Sprach, which was the idea?  But it certainly didn’t have the same dramatic effect.  All kinds of bowing were used in the third movement, and the players shook their bows a few times.  I was a bit worried that the bows might break.  Kim was in the first violin chair for this piece, but probably didn’t matter as each player seemed to be doing his/her own thing.

The bad acoustics really ruined the Beethoven quartet. Written a couple of years before Beethoven’s death, it belongs in the composer’s late period.  Even after listening to a couple of movements before going to the concert, I found the music difficult to grasp.  The rhythms were “unconventional,” the contrasts not as great as what one finds in the more familiar Beethoven works, and – for a quartet – it was very long at over 40 minutes.  Perhaps that is a characteristic of Beethoven’s late period during when the composer – per our friend David – wrote for future generations.  The Choral Symphony, completed a year before, was certainly easy to get.  All that added to a difficult 40 minutes.

We had trouble seeing the quartet members from where we sat.  We could barely see them when they stood up to acknowledge the audience's applause.

The Argus Quartet is in it fifth (or so) year, and was under the mentorship of the Brentano Quartet.  All the musicians are quite young.  It was too bad that their debut at Princeton was marred by the unfortunate change of venue.

We brought along the parents of Vivian, and had dinner with them and the Yees at Panera Bread.  It was pleasant conversation to and from Princeton, even though we got home quite late as we had to drop the Choys off.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Louis Langree, conductor. July 25, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat X02, $50).

Program – The Singing Heart
Kyrie, K.90 (1772) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphony No. 35 in D major, K.385 (“Haffner”) (1782) by Mozart.
Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal (traditional, arr. Alice Parker).
Tres Cantos Nativos dos Indios Krao (traditional, arr. Marcos Leite).
Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel (spiritual, arr. Moses Hogan).
Ah vous dirai-je, maman (traditional, arr. Francisco J. Nunez).
Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80 (“Choral Fantasy”) (1808-09) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Bernadette Peters – Host
Kit Armstrong, piano; Janai Brugger, soprano; Brandie Sutton, soprano; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Jack Swanson, tenor; Miles Mykkanen, tenor; Adam Lau, bass
Young People’s Chorus of New York City, Francisco J. Nunez, artistic director
Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell, choral director

Tonight was the opening night of the MM Festival, and there were several things unusual about the program.  For one, Bernadette Peters, better known as a Broadway singer and actress, was the host.  On the program were also several traditional songs sung by the YPC, backed up by the full orchestra.  The entire program was done without a break, although there was a short pause so the piano can be brought onto the stage for the Choral Fantasy. Finally, other than for the symphony, I would be listening to the pieces for the first time.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Peters as the host.  It worked out okay.  She read from her notes, and didn’t claim to be this expert trying to teach the audience something, although I found what she said quite informative.  One time she stumbled a bit while leaving the stage, and made the audience laugh by taking a bow; sense of timing still intact, even at age 69.

I had a chance to study up on the Mozart and Beethoven pieces, so was quite prepared for them.  The Kyrie was written by Mozart when he was 16 (and numbered K.90 already), and is quite straightforward.  As with the Vivaldi piece we heard earlier this summer, it had only the phrases “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.”  What was unexpected was this was done a cappella by the YPC.  And they sounded great!  One thing that remained puzzling to me was how these people got the pitch correct for the several pieces they sang during the concert.  I am quite sure not everyone had perfect pitch.

The Haffner Symphony wasn’t performed as a single piece, but rather in three sections: Allegro con spirito; Andante; and Menuetto and Presto.  Interspersed between the sections were the songs sung by the YPC.  From what Peters said, this was supposed to be how concerts were performed during Mozart’s time, and the songs (traditional and spiritual) were all written at around that time.  Overall it was a well-performed piece, and – despite the practice during Mozart’s time – I probably would have preferred the movements played together.  (Similarly, performing Mozart on period instruments is certainly interesting, but I’d rather listen to a modern orchestra.)

The few short songs interspersed in the program were quite enjoyable.  There was a lot of (coordinated) movement during the singing, and balance was always good among the different parts.  “Tres Cantos” is based on a melody sung by the Krao tribe of northwestern Brazil, and included many sounds of birds.  I thought the words must be Portuguese, but according to the Playbill “the meaning of the text is not known, it is treated here as a group of phenemes.”  The tune we know as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (and other children’s songs) was first sung as “Ah vous dirai-je, mamam” (“Ah shall I tell you, mother”) in France, a song describing a young woman’s awakening to love; it has been adopted by various composers such as Mozart and Beethoven.  Nunez made tonight’s a cappella arrangement to “continue the distinguished tradition” (per Playbill, and what chutzpah, per I).  For this song the YPC was joined by the Very YPC, making for a rather grand sight with them holding up little lights.  Despite my dig at Nunez, there is a lot of reason to be proud of these young and very young singers.  I had recorded the group in my blog before, in an ABT ballet performance, but didn't comment at all on how (or what) they did.  The New York Times review didn't talk about them either.

The structure of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy is a bit usual.  Per the Playbill, in a December 22, 1808 Beethoven led a concert that premiered the fifth and sixth symphonies, and the fourth piano concerto (with composer at keyboard), plus other works with vocalists and chorus.  For good measure he threw in this 20-minute piece with an unusual structure: it begins with a solo piano playing in an improvisation style, then introduced the orchestra, and concludes with vocal soloists and a chorus (excerpted from Playbill.)  The vocal section is very short, less than 5 minutes in total length, and is considered by many as a precursor to “Ode to Joy” in the ninth symphony.  Here there are six soloists instead of the four in the symphony.

After the performance of the Choral Fantasy.

I had listened to the piece a couple of times before tonight, and I still enjoyed it very much.  Kit Armstrong was born in 1992, but evidently started his music life at a very young age.  The Wikipedia entry on him contains some amazing information, including starting college at age 9 (although he didn’t graduate until he was 22.)  He is quite small, yet generated a great sound from the piano.  The choral part wasn’t as grand as that in the symphony, yet it was no less inspiring.  But I do pity the chorus, they had to sit there from the beginning of the concert.

As we were about to leave the auditorium after the conclusion, we found out there was going to be an encore piece.  It didn’t sound as good listening to it at the door.

The New York Times came out with a review soon after the program (not much work during the summer), and was generally effusive about the program and the performance.  One dig, though: "If the concept lacked focus, the rewards were many."

We bought tickets to three MM concerts this season, at a discount from Goldstar.com.  I still remember panning the sound of the orchestra a few years ago, they have certainly made great progress since then.

We left home early, worried that traffic would be bad during the summer.  It was not bad at all. Not feeling that hungry, we got takeout and ate next to the Julliard School.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Lysander Piano Trio. July 18, 2017.

Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University.  General Admission (Balcony Left, free).

Intermezzo from “Goyescas” by Granados (1867-1916), arr. Cassado (1897-1966).
Around a Cauldron (2016) by Cohen (b. 1980).
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 in E-flat Major by Liszt (1811-1886).
D’un matin de printemps by Boulanger (1893-1918).
Piano Trio in A minor (1914) by Ravel (1875-1937).

Liza Stepanova, piano; Itamar Zorman, violin; Michael Katz, cello.

This was another concert in the Princeton Summer Chamber Series.  I lamented in my last post that by the time I tried to get tickets on the web, they were all gone.  The website mentioned that some would be available at 6 pm on the day of the concert, and we decided to give it a try.  Anne was told there were a few tickets available, and she got two – I was trying to find a place to park the car.  We had a simple dinner a Mamoun again.  While the concert was well-attended, there were quite a few empty seats in the balcony (about 2 sections worth.)  I wonder how many who wanted to hear the concert didn’t show up because of this ticketing policy.  Today they scanned the tickets, which really wasn’t necessary.

The trio was formed while the musicians were in Julliard together in 2009, and has managed to snag a few prizes in the meantime.  I looked up Itamar Zorman on the web, he is the son of a composer father and a pianist mother, lives in Israel, was the recipient of an Avery Fisher grant, and plays a Guarneri violin.  Impressive credentials.

The musicians took turns remarking about the pieces on the program.  The Intermezzo was written by Enrique Granados as part of a Catalan opera based on Goya’s paintings so there would be time for scenery changes.  It was arranged into a piano trio y Gaspar Cassado.

Gilad Cohen got his doctorate in music from Princeton, and now teaches at Ramapo College.  His thesis and research seemed to concentrate to Pink Floyd.  On his website he refers to himself as an Israeli composer and pianist.  He was on hand to describe his composition, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth: dark forest night, cricket sounds, three witches (perhaps the trio?) dancing around a cauldron.  The piece has 7 scenes: In Dusk, Pounce, Transmutation, Boiling, Witches Waltz, Newts’ Lament, and Sacrificial; the last scene recalls some tunes – such as they are – from the first six.  While the scenes are self-explanatory, I found it difficult to tell where they were as the piece was played without a break.  There was a lot of screeching in the string instruments, and at some point the pianist stood up and did something to the sound board as she hit the keys.  This is a piece I would listen to again if I have the chance, and also perhaps to understand its structure in more depth.

Gilad Cohen joined the Lysander Trio after performance of his Trio "Around a Cauldron."

According to the cellist, Liszt was considered a superstar in his day.  The Hungarian Rhapsodies were originally written for the piano, but Liszt transcribed No. 9 for the piano trio as well, and this is the only known chamber music the composer wrote.  The piece is longer than I would expect of a Rhapsody, and presented a lot of challenges for the musicians, which they tackled with ease.

Lili Boulanger was from a musician family.  She was considered a prodigy at age two, and was the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize in 1913.  Unfortunately, she contracted bronchial pneumonia at that age also, and lived only to age 24.  The symphonic poem “One Spring Morning” was composed during the last year of her life.  She transcribed the work into different forms, including a piano trio.

Ravel’s piece was quite long at about 30 minutes.  It consisted of four movements Modere; Pantoum: Assez vif; Pasccacaille: Tre large; and Finale: Anime.  Zorman didn’t use the provided microphone when he described the piece, so I missed some of it.  The first movement is marked 8/8, but the structure of the measure is 3-2-3.  I had a look at the music beforehand, but the sound wasn’t as unusual as I expected.  The second movement is Malaysian in character, although I couldn’t tell.  The third movement is a Passacaglia.  The last movement describes a dawn that was both glorious and terrifying. 

For the encore they played Joseph Suk’s Elegy.

As I looked over the blog, I noticed there was much discussion about the music, but not much about how it came across.  The musicians met the challenges, and overall the sound balance was very good.

However, in the middle of Ravel I felt a bit tired.  Not physically tired, but I didn’t find the piece engaging.  That could be the length of the program, or how the pieces were ordered in the program.  For instance, trying to grasp the Cauldron piece required a lot of mental energy, and I might have decided not to work as hard at getting the Ravel trio.

Oh, we were wondering how the pianist turned the pages on her iPad.  We noticed from its blinking green light the foot-switch used for that purpose.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Brentano String Quartet. July 9, 2017.

Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University.  General Admission (Balcony Right Rear, free).

Madrigal set (arr. Steinberg for string quartet) by Gesualdo (1566-1613).
The Fifth Book by Hartke (b. 1952).
Quartet No. 7, op 59, no. 1, “Razumovsky” by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Mark Steinberg, violin; Serena Canin, violin; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Lee, cello.

This concert was part of the Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts series.  The concert was also billed as the PUSCC 50th season celebration concert.  Perhaps for this reason the auditorium was filled; a friend couldn’t get a ticket because the concert was sold out – even though isolated empty seats were around.  The quartet began its association with Princeton as far back as 1999, and has progressed from a relatively unknown ensemble to a well-established group which also mentors other quartets.

Each piece on today’s program is from a different century.  One could argue the piece by Carlo Gesualdo had 21st century elements in it as it was arranged from the 16th century piece by Steinberg.  The set consists of three movements, it is not clear from either the Program or the introduction by Scott Burnham how they were chosen from the many Gesualdo had written.  Without the words associated with the specific madrigals I couldn’t quite tell what the quartet was trying to say.  The tunes and harmonies were pleasant enough to listen to, though.

As to the piece by Stephen Hartke, the Program contains the sentence “Commissioned by the Brentano Quartet for their Fragments Project in celebration of their 20th Anniversary.  The work reflects on the first movement of an unfinished quartet by Shostakovich.”  Burnham’s commentary didn’t talk about the Shostakovich linkage at all, he rather referred to the piece as a quartet trying to sound like a madrigal (as opposed to madrigal made to sound like a quartet for the earlier piece.)  Interesting observations, but my ears (and mind) couldn’t get that characteristic, in no small due to my lack of knowledge of madrigals.  I often ask the question of contemporary music: will I remember it after a while?  I am writing this 4 days after hearing it, and I have no recall of what it sounded like.

[Note added 7/17/2017.  I noticed I did write some notes about this piece.  The five movements denote respecitively winter, spring, summer, fall, and winter again, with the third movement as the central one.  I did remember thinking all the seasons showed quite a bit of calmness.]

Perhaps due to the first two pieces in the program, I really appreciated the Beethoven quartet.  It was rather long at about 40 minutes, and consisted of Allegro; Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando; Adagio molto e mesto; and Theme russe, Allegro.  I had looked over the score while listening to a YouTube recording, so was somewhat prepared to have a good listening session, and I did.

Brentano Quartet.

This was the third time we saw the quartet, with the first being in 2005, 12 years ago.  The players looked as young as they did then, and I thought they improved quite a bit over the years (fewer intonation problems, good balance, etc.)  And PUSCC has come a long way also.  The Program is upgraded from a two-sided sheet to a high quality pamphlet.  Honestly the content was as minimal as before, so I hope they are making a lot of money from advertisements.

This is the second year they have gone to electronic tickets, making it easy for someone who might go to get a ticket.  The downside was our friend couldn’t get tickets for this concert, and I couldn’t get them for the next concert.  I wonder if they have developed a robust “overbooking” algorithm to account for the no-shows yet.

Packed Richardson Auditorium.

The concert was at 3 pm in the afternoon, and Princeton was busy on a Sunday afternoon.  We had to park in the municipal lot.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Princeton Festival Chamber Concert with Baroque Orchestra. June 24, 2017.

Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary.  General Admission ($30.)

Beatus Vir, SV 268 by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).
Kyrie, RV 587 by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).
Miserere, ZWV 57 by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745).
Chanos Anthem no. 11a, “Let God Arise,” HWV 256a by Handel (1685-1759).

Michael Duryea, Maria Hagan, Kyle Hanson, Shohei Kobayashi, Simon Shiao.

During the Festival a group of conductors (mostly but not all young) attended master classes conducted by Jan Harrington, retired Chair of the Choral Conducting Department at the Indiana University.  This concert is the result of their hard (I assume) work for the last several weeks.

A couple of the pieces were conducted by a single conductor, and the other by a combination of them, sometimes with a switch after a short movement (e.g., Miserere.)

I had time the day prior to listen to all the pieces on YouTube, and managed to find scores for three of them (couldn’t find Vivaldi’s Kyrie.)  The music, with solo, choral, and orchestral parts, looked quite a bit more complicated.

Instead of getting bored, or only using my “left brain” to listen, I found today’s concert generally more captivating. Perhaps the addition of lyrics helped a lot.  Although I do not know Latin, and had some trouble getting the words in the Handel piece, I had some idea what the pieces were about.  Beatus Vir was based on Psalm 112 which begins with “Blessed is the man;” Kyrie has three simple phrases: “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison,” meaning Lord and Christ have mercy, yes one phrase is repeated; Miserere is based on the Psalm of repentance by David (Psalm 51), and Handel’s lyrics are from Psalm 68 and 76.

Here are some details:

Monteverdi.  He also lived in Venice, and preceded Vivaldi by 100 years.

Vivaldi.  Three segments are Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, and Kyrie eleison.

Miserere.  Zelenka was more Bohemian in style (per our friend David).  Today’s piece consists of: Miserere I, Miserere II, Gloria Patri I, Gloria Patri II, and Miserere III.  M I and M III are very similar (M III appears to be an abbreviated I), yet they sounded very different with two different conductors.  M I was serene, M III was agitated. I don’t know how Zelenka intended it, but I am sure M III hews more to the taste of today’s listener.

Handel.  This is the longest of the four, and the movements are Symphony, Let God Arise, Like as the Smoke, Let the Righteous be Glad, O Sing unto God, Praised be the Lord, At the Rebuke O God, and Blessed be God.  I thought there was a part that sounded very much like Messiah, Chung Shu also pointed out it sounded like one of his coronation anthems.

There were on occasion some voice ensembles, some involved the soloists we heard earlier (Johnson and Bello).  Our seats were in the first occupied row, so everything sounded loud and clear, and I got to observe how critical technique was in their delivery.

At the end of the concert.  Eventually other conductors and soloists would join these people in the front.

Many of the conductors also sang in the chorus, which also included Richard Tang Yuk, the Artistic Director of the Festival.  One string player played the viola da gamba, the viola, and the violin.  (A search of the web identifies her as Stephanie Raby.)

Indeed Chung Shu and Shirley decided to join us, so we carpooled out together.  The six of us stopped by the reception (can’t turn down free food) and had a simple dinner at Mamoun’s before we went our separate ways.  During the reception I really wanted to ask one of the string players why their instruments go out of tune so easily, but couldn’t find anyone standing there alone.  Anne told me many of them had changed out of their black clothes; so they were around.

The group dates back to the 1970s, when were were students at Cornell (Anne and I were undergrads, the others were graduate students.)

We left some food on our boat yesterday, so had to stop by to dispose of it – otherwise it would really reek given the hot weather we expect to get.  So it was about 10:30 pm that we got home.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra. June 21, 2017.

Miller Chapel, Princeton University.  General Admission ($35.)

Concerto di Viole (Concerto Grosso) in D major by Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682).
Concerto Grosso in B minor, HWV 330 by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).
Da Tempeste from Giulio Cesare, HWV 17 by Handel.
Oboe and Violin Concerto in C minor, BWV 1060 by John Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).
“Concerto Polonois” in G major, TWV 43:G7 by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767).
Symphony, Op. 5, No. 6 in G minor by Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783).

Our friends Vivien and David, who recently returned from a 10-day Bach Festival in Leipzig, decided to attend this concert also.  We had an early dinner at Triumph Brewing Company, which is right next to the Panera Bread on Nassau that we frequent.  It was good to catch up with these friends from our college days.

Today was the first time I visited Princeton Theological Seminary.  I have seen a few seminaries before, and I must say this is impressive.  The new library houses over 1 million books.  The concert took place at the Seminary’s chapel.  Around 150 people attended,

I took some time before the concert to go over several pieces that I could locate on YouTube.  That affirmed my theory that these compositions are probably interesting pieces to analyze, but not necessary emotionally appealing.  Requiring more of the left brain than the right, so to speak.

Members of the Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra at the conclusion of the concert, inside Miller Chapel.

Here are more details:

Stradella.  Reynaldo Patifo, violin; Chiar Stauffer, violin; Anna Steinhoff, cello; Arash Noori, theorbo.  Several musicians played from the balcony.  There was a viola da Gamba in the ensemble.

Handel Concerto Grosso. The movements are Largo; Allegro; Aria; Largo; and Allegro.  Maria Romero violin; Alice Culin-Ellison, violin; Anna Steinhoff, cello.

Handel’s Giulio Cesare aria Da Tempeste.  Paloma Friedhoff Bello, soprano.  Her singing was enjoyable.  We saw the opera a while back, but I couldn’t quite place the song in the broader context.

Bach.  The movements are Allegro; Adagio; and Allegro.  Caroline Giassi, oboe; Juan Carlos Zamudio, violin.  Interestingly the original composition was lost, and this was reconstructed from a two-harpsichord transcription done by Bach himself.

Telemann.  The movements are Dolce, Allegro, and Allegro.  Scores I saw from the web has an extra movement “Largo” stuck between the two Allegros.  It was short, but was clearly there.

Hasse.  The movements are Allegro, Andante, and Allegro.

The scores that I looked over before the concert all had minimal parts.  Does interpretation of baroque music include a liberal use of (say) the oboe other than basso continuo?  There was a piece with two recorder players.

The instruments, especially the violins, seemed to go out of tune easily.  That may explain why the intonation often sounded off.  Wonder if there are inherent reasons why this is so, or simply that strings were wound improperly on the pegs?

Concert ended at around 8:45 pm.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Princeton Festival Musical Man of La Mancha. June 17, 2017.

Matthews Acting Studio at Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University.  General Admission ($45.)

Production and Cast
Michael Dean Morgan, director; Louis F. Goldberg – music director; Cervantes/Don Quioxte – Jess Malgieri, Sancho Panza - Jordan Bunshaft, Aldonza – Sandra Marante, Governor/Innkeeper – Patrick James, Duke/Carrasco – Kyle Guglielmo, Antonia/Fermina/Gypsy Dancer – Joanna Connolly, Maria, Innkeeper’s wife – Kristin Titus, Padre/Paco, a Muleteer – Pierre Le Grange.

Musical Numbers
Overture – Orchestra; Man of La Mancha – Don Quixote & Sancho; It’s All the Same – Aldonza; Dulcinea – Don Quixote; I’m Only Thinking of Him – Antonia, Padre, Housekeeper & Dr. Carrasco; I Really Like Him – Sancho; What Does He Want of Me? – Aldonza; Little Bird, Little Bird – Muleteers; Barber’s Song – Barber; Golden Helmet of Mambrino – Don Quixote, Sancho & Barber; To Each His Dulcinea – Padre; The Impossible Dream – Don Quixote; Knight of the Woeful Countenance – Innkeeper, Aldonza & Sancho; Aldonza – Aldonza; A Little Gossip – Sancho; Dulcinea (reprise) – Aldonza; The Impossible Dream (reprise) – Aldonza & Don Quixote; Man of La Mancha (reprise) – Don Quixote, Aldonza & Sancho; Finale Ultimo – Company.

The Baroque Chamber Concert, subject of the last blog, concluded at around 5 pm.  Our plan was to visit the sculpture garden in Hamilton, and then come back to Princeton for the musical. Our plans were quite loose as we considered the musical an option that we wouldn’t fret about missing.

When we reached the sculpture garden at about 5:30 pm, it was pouring, making an outdoor activity quite impossible.  We headed first to the Quakerbridge Mall, and eventually decided to go to iHOP to have a simple dinner.  When we got to the Lewis Center it was about 7:20 pm.  People were already lining up outside the theatre entrance as it was open seating, and the ticketing people (same we saw earlier today, per Anne) told us there were 3 tickets left.  So that settled it.

The Festival Book lists 11 performances of this musical, which is quite impressive, even considering the small theater seats about 150 people.  For tonight’s performance it was filled to capacity.

We saw the Broadway version of this many many years ago.  The first thing I noticed was I didn’t find the story so confusing.  Anne thought the whole thing was a dream or recollection by Cervantes while he was in prison waiting to be called by the Inquisitors; I think it is a bit more complicated than that.  Of course having some actors playing multiple roles only added to my confusion.

Even with the overall setting lost to me, I still found the individual scenes quite compelling.  Worth particular mention was how Cervantes’s love Aldonza eventually saw herself as Dulcinea, the idealized version envisioned by Cervantes.

The singing was uniformly great.  Prior Broadway shows I have seen all had singers miked up.  As far as I can tell that wasn’t so today – the theatre is very small, after all.

The set is simple, a simple stage with a few crates that were moved around to form different props, such as a cross, and with the addition of a piece of plywood, a table. There were quite a few bright lights that came on at different instances.  By and large the setup worked.

The two actors in the front are Aldonza (Sandra Marante) and Cervantes (Jess Malgieri.)  What is seen in the back is most of the set.

The play lasted longer than the advertised 1:45 hours, and was performed without an intermission.  It didn’t feel long at all.

While seeing this musical wasn’t high on our list of things to do, we are glad to have seen it.

Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra Chamber Concert. June 17, 2017.

Princeton Abbey, Princeton, NJ.  General Admission ($30.)

Artists (member of PF Baroque Orchestra)
Juan Carlos Zamudio, violin; Reynaldo Patino, violin & viola; Maria Romero, violin & viola; Anna Steinhoff, cello; Gregory Geehern, harpsichord.

Harmonia Artificioso-Ariosa, Partia V in G minor by Heinrich Biber (1644-1704).
Sonata Seconda (a 2) in E minor by Johann Rosenmuller (1619-1684).
Herr, wenn ich nur dich hab G Major, BuxWV 38 by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707).
-        Evelyn Johnson, soprano.
Cello Sonata No. 1 in G major by Domenico Gabrielli (1659-1690).
Trio Sonata, Op. 5, No. 1 in A major, HWV 396 by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).
Divertimento in B-flat major, K. 137 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

In an email exchange with our friend David Y we found out about this Princeton Festival, which bills itself as “NJ’s premier performance arts festival.”  During the month of June multiple events scheduled in the Princeton area include lectures, dances, jazz, baroque concerts, a musical and an opera.

We decided to sample the festival by buying tickets to this chamber concert, with musicians from the PF Baroque Orchestra.

Other than Handel and Mozart, all the composers were (mostly) seventeenth century figures, a group to whom I have had only limited prior exposure.  Turns out these were all well-known composers of that period, and the selection traces an arc from Austria and Germany to Italy.  Regrettably I found out after the concert as in the booklet they handed out at the concert there was no program notes to be found.

At least from what the bows looked like, the program was performed with period instruments (of course some period instruments are being manufactured today.)  One generally gets a more “country” (for lack of a better description) tone out of these instruments.  The other fact seems these instruments’ tuning drifts rather readily, there was a lot of tuning between pieces and movements.

The cello and the harpsichord often acted as the basso continuo.  It was interesting to hear in one piece (forget which one) the continuous droning repetition of the cello of an ascending scale that evoked the rhythmic equivalent in the snare drum in Ravel’s Bolero. (I did some research as I was writing this, this occurred in the “Passacaglia” movement of the Biber piece.)  In general, I was impressed with the competency required of the musicians, even though none of the works can be considered “virtuoso” by today’s standards.

The musicians Maria Romero, Juan Carlos Zamudio, Gregory Geehern, Anna Steinhoff and Reynaldo Patino taking a bow after the concert.

I was joking to Anne that the program exhausted all the baroque music in the repertoire.  That of course isn’t true.  But it did give me all the baroque music I wanted to hear in one sitting, even though the one hour program had pieces by Handel and Mozart in it.  Actually, if I had had more time before the concert, and the inclination, it would be interesting to try to analyze the structures of the pieces – that’s what I did as theory students in college, after all.

It takes quite a bit of chutzpah to bill oneself as a “premier” event, and I am not sure if this is an expression of self-confidence, or simply a marketing trick.  Certainly on the classical music side the Festival provides a very limited glimpse, limited to the baroque period at that; and I am not sure it can honestly bill itself as the “premier baroque” event.  Nor the “premier jazz,” “premier musical,” for that matter.

From reading the bios of the artists, there seem to be quite a few graduate students from Indiana University.

The Festival Book has the venue listed as the Princeton Abbey.  The place now calls itself the Princeton Abbey and Cemetery.  It started in the early 1900s as a Catholic Seminary, which eventually closed down in 1992.  Recent zoning changes allow 12 acres be turned into a cemetery and depository for cremated remains.  The facility will be non-religious.  There are no obvious crosses or other Catholic references in the Abbey, although the stained glass windows continue to depict people and events in the Bible, as far as I can tell.  It isn’t air-conditioned, so felt a bit stifling on this warm (not hot) but humid day.  The place was filled, about 150 people.

There will be a concert by the full orchestra this coming Wednesday at the Princeton Theological Seminary, we may go see it.

And we stayed in the area so we could see the musical Man of La Mancha, but that is the subject of the next blog entry.

Friday, June 16, 2017

New Jersey Symphony – Xian Zhang, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano. June 10, 2017.

Count Basie Theater, Red Bank, NJ.  Balcony (Seat E108, $38).

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 () by Brahms ().
Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 (1937) by Shostakovich (1906-1975).

A couple of days ago we had an impressive season finale for the New York Phil; the program for tonight’s NJSO’s season finale is also quite impressive.  Powerhouse Bronfman playing Brahms’s second piano concerto and one of Shostakovich’s popular but difficult symphonies constitute a great program for any orchestra.

The most memorable melody for the Brahms’ concerto is first heard from the horn.  The first phrase was good, but there were a few misfired notes in the second phrase.  The melody is simple enough, so I think it had to be nerves that caused the stumble; so I felt bad more than I felt cheated.

Unfortunately, this unpropitious start lingered on as the concerto went on.  There were no more blatant mistakes, but very minor one became amplified, hard as I tried to ignore them.  Such is the workings of the human (or at least my) mind.

I have read quite a few people describe this concerto as being more cerebral than the first one.  It certainly didn’t start in the angular manner the first concerto did, but there were many moments when I thought the whole thing was too loud.  Indeed Bronfman sounded much harsher than usual at times.  There is however no doubt this is a virtuoso piece that Bronfman made look easy.  I just wish it provoked more than just “awe” from me.

The cello plays a prominent role in the third movement, and Spitz really made the melody sing.  The Program Notes aptly describes the instrument as “the warmest and most human-sounding” string instrument.

Yes, a concerto thrives on the tension and cooperation between the soloist and the orchestra.  I wish there was more cooperation tonight, that’s all.

The long concerto (46 minutes per the notes) has four movements: Allegro non troppo, Allegro appassionato, Andante, and Allegretto grazioso.

The applause was one of the loudest and most prolonged I have observed in New Jersey.  I hope that will be a factor Bronfman considers if he is asked to come back; that may offset the many empty seats in the theater.

Bronfman was enthusiastically applauded by the audience after performing Brahms's Second Piano Concerto.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony certainly is a difficult piece to pull off.  In looking over the score, I was wondering how an orchestra could keep things precise with a double dotted eighth note followed by two 32nd notes.  It would be difficult to do it precisely as a soloist, much less when you have a whole section playing together.  NJSO actually did all right in this front.

Shostakovich was criticized by Stalin for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and wrote this symphony as a way to redeem himself.  I am impressed that Stalin actually knew music well enough to calibrate how revolutionary a particular piece is.  I am also impressed that Shostakovich actually understood as he obvious could write in such a way that fixes those “mistakes.”  In any case, the fifth got him rehabilitated.

Regardless of its political significance, the piece supposedly talks about the struggle of the individual, with Shostakovich saying “… the finale resolves the tragedy and tension … on a joyous, optimistic note.” Not unlike the program for Sibelius’s violin concerto.

Having “studied” the first two of the four movements, I got to appreciate the “rhythm theme” and the interplay of horns in the second movement.  The markings of the movements are simple: Moderato, Allegretto, Largo, and Allegro non troppo.

Many people we know also bought tickets to the concert.  One couple actually was saying they would like to go to more concerts.  Good news indeed.

We were at Ellie’s in the afternoon, so we postponed dinner (quarter pounder with cheese) until after the concert.

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Anthony McGill, clarinet. June 8, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat EE107, $45.50).

Program.  Alan Gilbert Season Finale: A Concert for Unity
Ibn Arabi Postlude (2007/2014) by Azmeh (b. 1976).
The Latina 6/8 Suite (2014) by Perez (b. 1978)/Traditional.
Symphony No. 7 (1904-05) by Mahler (1860-1911).

Artists.  Musicians from the New York Philharmonic and the Silk Road Ensemble.
Ibn Arabi Postlude.  Yo-Yo Ma; Anthony McGill; Johnny Gandelsman, Alan Gilbert – violin; Cynthia Phelps – viola; Carter Brey – cello; Edward Perez – bass; Shane Shanahan – Percussion.
The Latina 6/8 Suite.  Christina Pato - Galician bagpipes and piano; Johnny Gandelsman, Alan Gilbert – violin; Cynthia Phelps - Viola; Yo-Yo Ma – cello; Edward Perez – bass; Shane Shanahan, Christopher S. Lamb, Daniel Druckman – percussion.

This is it.  Alan Gilbert will end his tenure as NY Phil’s music director after this series of concerts.  If I understand things correctly, the Mahler piece – very substantial at close to 90 minutes – was featured in all the concerts in this program.  Invited to participate in the orchestra were musicians from more than 20 orchestras, the majority of them from overseas. For those who were fortunate to have tickets to tonight’s concert, there were two additional modern pieces by “foreign” composers who now live in New York, and Yo-Yo Ma and players from his Silk Road ensemble would be playing also.  To top it all, Gilbert would be playing the violin (second) in the two modern pieces.  He has on occasion played the violin in concerts, but I never had the chance to see them.

I am writing this review on June 15, a full week after it happened, so have forgotten a lot about the specifics of the pieces.  But I am sure I am right in saying that I will remember this more as an occasion rather than a musical moment – not that the music was not great.

The concert started with a video message from Antonio Guterrez, the Secretary-General of the UN, who mentioned various dignitaries were in the audience.  This was followed by Ma and Gilbert having a “conversation” before the whole thing began.  I must say Ma needed work as a comedian, and I am not sure any of this added much insight to either Gilbert, the event, or the musical performance.

Kinan Azmeh was born in Damascus, Syria, now lives in Brooklyn.  The work was inspired by the thinker and philosopher Ibn Arabi (12/13th century).  The six-minute piece featured prominent parts by the cello (played by Ma) and the clarinet (McGill).  Like the piece that followed, it was quite accessible, not nearly as inscrutable as most other modern pieces I have come across.  And to the extent I know what Arab music sounds like, it sounded like that.

Curtain call at conclusion of Azmeh's piece.  From left: Johnny Gandelsman, Alan Gilbert, Cynthia Phelps, Yo-Yo Ma, Carter Brey, Anthony McGill, Edward Perez, Shane Shanahan.

Born in Weslaco, Texas, a town less than 10 miles north of the Rio Grande, Edward Perez, who now lives in Queens, isn’t foreign at all.  (The guy studied Applied Math at Harvard, to further mix up things.)  He did live in Peru for a couple of years to deepen his immersion in Afro-Latin musical styles.  This Suite was commissioned by Cristina Pato, who envisioned the piece “with movements that would each represent a different style of Afro-Caribbean 6/8 rhythms that had travel from Europe to the Americas.”  Fair enough.  The four movements are (i) Tarantella-Muineira (Traditional Sicilian and Galician; arr. E. Perez); (ii) Tanguillo: The High Seas (Edward Perez); (iii) Joropo-Festejo: Muineira de Chantada (Traditional Galician; arr. E. Perez); and (iv) Fandango: Prueba de Fuego (Edward Perez).  They totaled about twelve minutes of performance.

I of course couldn’t tell what was traditional and what was original, and again didn’t get terribly lost.  One instrument I had never encountered before was the Galician bagpipe.  Other than being predominantly black in color, it didn’t look that different from the Scottish ones that I was a bit more familiar with.  The instrument was lively in the hands (and mouth) of Pato, though.

It should be mentioned that Galicia is in the northwestern part of Spain, where Pato came from.  The piece was “a vehicle for exploring questions of identity,” which was described as a chain: “Galician to Spaniard to European to New Yorker – Latina.”  Sounds sophisticated, but I can think of myself as “Hong Kong to Chinese to Asian to Chinese-American.”  I suppose I can commission a work to explore that chain of identify.

Cynthia Pato joining at the end of the Perez piece.

It occurred to me that if I had seen this group of people on the street playing the same pieces of music – especially using amplifiers like they did tonight – I would probably cross over to the other side.  Not because I am afraid, but because I want to avoid the crowds that would inevitably surround them.

This was the second time I heard the Mahler Symphony live.  The last time was about 10 years ago, performed by NY Phil, conducted by Maazel.  I did get a chance to watch the first two movements on YouTube with the score.

Not quite able to critique the score or the performance, I am left with a few observations.  The most prominent one was this sounded more like Bruckner both in scope, “plot,” and dynamics.  It lacked the usual wanderings I expected of Mahler works, instead the development seemed quite traditional.  And there were so many loud passages that I worried about the musicians’ hearing.

Many writeups characterize this symphony as optimistic; the Playbill describes it as tracing “a path from darkness into light.”  Considering the time it was written, there was no reason for Mahler to feel positive; there was some time overlap between this and the very dark Symphony No. 6, afterall.

We did see quite a few unfamiliar faces in the orchestra.  One familiar face we didn’t expect was that of Yo-Yo Ma’s.  He was in the middle of the cello section; Anne thought he was the page turner.  I wonder how much practice Ma put in for the one performance he will do (I assume he didn’t play in the other concerts.)  While the part may not present any technical challenges for him, he still had to “get with the program” of the way Gilbert interprets it.  Interestingly, I don’t see Gilbert acknowledging him (one can argue either way) at the end.

That's it.  Last time Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic as its music director.  If you know what to look for, you can see Yo-Yo Ma in the cello section.  With guest artists from twenty-some orchestras, this was a huge production.  I counted, for instance, 14 violas.

The New YorkTimes review is more like a final assessment of Gilbert’s tenure.  To quote its last paragraph: “He seemed not like a man holding one of the major – not to say mythical – positions of its kind in the world, but like just another working musician, surrounded by colleagues, playing a gig.”  Kind, or brutal?  Depends on how snobbish you are, I guess.

So this is the end of one era.  The next era won’t begin until the 2018/19 season, as van Zweden will only be conducting a few concerts in the upcoming season – so far I bought tickets to only one concert he will be conducting.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

New York Philharmonic: Das Rheingold in Concert – Alan Gilbert, conductor. June 6, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat OO112, $59.25).

Das Rheingold (1851-54) by Wagner (1813-83)

Wotan – Eric Owens, Fricka – Jamie Barton, Alberich – Christopher Purves, Loge – Russell Thomas, Erda -Kelley O’Connor, Fasolt – Morris Robinson, Fafner – Stephen Milling, Freia – Rachel Willis-Sorensen, Froh – Brian Jagde, Donner – Christian Van Horn, Mime – Peter Bronder, Woglinde – Jennifer Zetlan, Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnson Cano, Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford.

I had to make an emergency trip to Australia and returned earlier than I expected.  Some seats were still available for tonight’s concert.  The $55 Orchestra 4 tickets were discounted to $52 for subscribers, yet with extra fees they ended up being $59.25 each.  We did get seats towards the end of the main hall, but they were fine.  The acoustics were great, we could hear most of singing clearly.  With binoculars it was easy to spot the singers, as long as I could see around the heads of the people in front of me.  Quite a few people left during the 2 ½ hours of non-stop music, so that task became easier as the evening progressed.

Being an “in concert” production, the only prop on stage was a short table that different people climbed on and off at various times.  I wished they had a bit more, for example, it should be straightforward enough to fabricate gold from styrofoam so the scene where Freia is covered with gold could be more realistic.  Without the introduction of special effects, it would be difficult to have Alberich transform into first a dragon and then a toad.

Having seen this opera several times before, I could fill in some of the blanks.  Thus I also got to follow the story.  I found myself getting new insight into the characters, and how Wagner even in the first opera made this a somewhat “amoral” group of characters, each with his or her flaws.  There were aspects of the story that I didn’t realize before, such as the symmetry between this opera and Gotterdammerung.  The tetralogy begins and ends with the Rheinmaidens, and the Valhalla built in Das Rheingold will be destroyed in Gotterdammerung.

I often complain there is no perfect seat in the hall, so I was pleasantly surprised how good the sound was at our seat.  Many of the singers had their New York Philharmonic debut at this concert, but I had seen quite a few of them in other contexts.  Christopher Purves, for instance, sang the role of “Protector” in Benjamin’s “Written on Skin,” also conducted by Gilbert.

Overall this was an enjoyable performance, particularly for those who know how the story unfolds.  The orchestra being on stage naturally took on a more prominent role, but that was okay.  Given Gilbert often stood between the orchestra and the singers, prompters and assistant conductors sat in the front to help.  (Anne noticed them.)

Standing from left to right at curtain call: Brian Jagde (Froh), Rachel Willis-Sorensen (Freia), Christian Van Horn (Donner), Stephen Milling (Fafner), Morris Robinsin (Fasolt), Eric Owens (Wotan), Alan Gilbert, Jamie Barton (Fricka), Russell Thomas (Loge), Christopher Purves (Alberich), Peter Bronder (Mime), Kelley O'Connor (Erda), Tamara Mumford (Flosshilde), Jennifer Johnson Cano (Wellgunde), and Jennifer Zetlan (Woglinde).

This series and the next series constitute Gilbert’s farewell performances.  I am glad I caught this, and will be going to the June 8 concert as well.  On that program is Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, another rather ambitious endeavor.

The New York Times review is glowing, calling it "a remarkable evening of music theater."  Supposedly Gilbert's original idea of a 5-hour Messiaen was nixed in favor of Das Rheingold.  I, for one, am glad we heard tonight's performance.

We drove up and had Chinese take-out in our car.  It was quite straightforward to get home.

Jonah. May 23, 2017.

Sight and Sound Theatres, Lancaster, PA.  (Seat 301GG20, $55)

Act I

  1. Prolog
  2. Jonah's Hometown
  3. God's Call
  4. Jonah Escapes
  5. Jonah on the Run
  6. Joppa Boat Dock
  7. Setting Sail
  8. The Storm

Act II

  1. Under the Waves
  2. In the Belly of the Whale
  3. Spit Out on the Beach
  4. Meanwhile, Back at Gath-Hepher
  5. Nineveh
  6. The Hilltop: East of Nineveh
  7. The Plant: Day 40
  8. The Worm, the Wind, the Sun
  9. Finale

This musical (for lack of a better term) is based on the Book of Jonah.  The story is enhanced with some "background" material to explain the hatred of Jonah towards the people from Nineveh.

There are some rather clever effects that add a certain level of reality to the production.  Fishes and other creatures were brought out during "Under the Waves" to simulate the ocean.  Sometimes the props would be comedic, such as the worm that came out to eat the plant.

There is quite a bit of spoken dialog, and fewer musical numbers than I expected.

Live animals are also part of the show, including several geese that looked surprisingly well-trained.

We saw Moses a couple of years ago,and I thought this isn't as good.  Perhaps the formula is a bit too standard and is not as interesting the second time around.

We were in town for a lunch and dinner meeting, and managed to catch the show in between.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Leonidas Kavakos, violin. May 20, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Y107, $83.25).

Quintet for Piano and Strings in A major, D.667, Trout (1819) by Schubert (1797-1828).
Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77 (1878-79) by Brahms (1833-97).

Quintet musicians.  Shery Staples – violin, Cynthia Phelps – viola, Carter Brey – cello, Timothy Cobb – bass, Shai Wosner – piano.

Anne was away with a church group visiting Central Asia, and I just got back from a Boston trip Friday night.  This did allow me the opportunity to go see this concert, with a program of two pieces that are easy to like.

One of my favorite CDs is a recording of “The Trout” made by Emanuel Ax, Pamela Frank, Rebecca Young, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer.  Today’s ensemble consisted of string players from the Philharmonic, and the guest artist Wosner, and they put in a delightful performance.  Looking back at my reaction to the last time I heard this life (again with Philharmonic players), this is not necessarily a given.

The five musicians (Wosner second from left) after performing Schubert's Trout Quintet.

The Brahms violin concerto, while traditional in structure, makes great technical demands of the performer, and spends a lot of times in the highest notes possible on a violin;  all this Kavakos met with aplomb.  It was overall quite an enjoyable experience, and the orchestra was a great counterpart to the solo. The second movement’s main melody was carried by the oboe, and Wang did an excellent rendition of it.  I will never understand why it was rejected by Sarasate and Hellmesberger. The latter’s famous/notorious remark that the composition was “a concerto not for, but against the orchestra” was partly to blame for Brahms destroying his second violin concerto.

I was a bit disappointed at the subdued degree of romanticism in the performance.  This seems to be a general complaint I have of Kavakos’s playing.

All the Philharmonic musicians, except Staples, performed in the Brahms concerto.  To my surprise, Huang showed up as the concertmaster for the piece.

Kavakos performed Brahms's violin concerto.

The other thing of note was I used the barcode on my cell phone for admission into the concert hall.  New York Philharmonic is the innovator in this regard.

Nowadays a barcode on your cell phone will get you admitted into a New York Philharmonic Concert.

We drove up to Boston last night (today is May 25), and listened to the concerto performed by Heifetz, and was he playing it at a high speed.

The last few concerts were also marked by the huge amount of coughing by the audience between movements.  It was so embarrassing that someone decided to cover it up with applause.  Also, the 65th Ave subway station was under repair, so I had to take the 5:07 pm train. I still got back to NJ in time to pick Anne up at Cheesequake, and we had dinner at the service plaza.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Metropolitan Opera – Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. May 13, 2017.

Cinemark Theaters, Hazlet, NJ.  Theater 11 (Seat C9, $28.22).

Story.  See previous post.  The only thing I would add is Act 1 is devoted to describing the love affair between Octavian and the Marschallin, and the conflict the latter feels as she realizes she is aging and must let Octavian go.

Conductor – Sebastian Weigle.  Octavian – Elina Garanca, The Marschallin – Renee Fleming, Baron Ochs - Gunther Groissbock, An Italian Singer – Matthew Polenzani, Herr von Faninal – Markus Bruck,  Sophie – Erin Morley.

This series of performances was to be Fleming’s last in her role of the Marschallin, and all of the performances were sold out, which is to be expected.  I didn’t want to pay a ton of money for one of the last remaining seats, so buying a Met: Live in HD ticket seemed to make good sense.  Anne was away with a church group, so I went to this screening by myself.

Inside Cinemark Theater 11 in Hazlet, NJ.

We saw this in December, 2013, and I called it “too much of a good thing.”  It was a double-header Strauss day for us, as we also had an afternoon concert with Ein Heldenleben in the program.  Today’s experience was much more enjoyable.

This is a new set, with all scenery based on this corner of a room.  The other set began its service in 1969, so it was time for a replacement.  I don’t remember much of the old set, but my blog seemed to indicate it worked reasonably well.  I am not sure this set has that many new aspects to truly amaze, the only “razzle-dazzle” was when the pictures turned into moving figures.  The old set depicted an opulent Vienna, the new setting is around 1911 (when the opera was written) so there is a heavy military theme to the costumes.  All good, and I suppose the large expenditure must be in part driven to make this a splash farewell for Fleming.  Of course, the last time I saw this the opera had a 30-minute delay because they had trouble with the set.

The music was much more accessible to me this time around.  I could appreciate how the orchestra worked with the singers in one integrated production.  A vocal technician may appreciate how the different singers performed, I just hoped they tuned the mikes to pick up more of the vocal lines.  I have appreciated Fleming more in other roles she played.  One bright spot was Erin Morley, she depicted well Sophie as a defiant girl who wanted to find her own way.  I had seen her a few times before, including as Sophie, and she didn’t sound as good or convincing in those instances.  The role of Ochs required quite a range (low C to G#), I didn’t catch all the instances when those notes were sung, but the couple of times I caught a low note (E perhaps) they sounded very weak.

I complained that I found the Act 3 three-women trio very confusing in the 2013 performance.  I am happy report it was much clearer this time.  I still have to learn to appreciate how it is “a gorgeous blend of female voices that is among the supreme accomplishments of lyric theater.”

Polenzani had a cameo role as an Italian singer who serenaded the Marschallin for a few minutes.  His voice clearly stood out.  He was also the host during the intermissions.  I caught a few minutes of his interviews with the cast, and that’s where I learned about Ochs’s range and Morley doing a more dependent Sophie.

The theater has these comfortable reclining chairs with full-length footrests.  My seat was in the third row, so it was very close to the screen.  Two problems.  One is that I had to tilt my head back even with the seat reclined.  The bigger problem is there is too much detail in the close up shots.  A diplomatic comment would be “I could see the stitching in the costumes.”  A less diplomatic one would be an even bigger suspension of belief is needed if the Marschallin is to be thought of as 32 years old.

The New York Times review is one of the longest I have seen, and other than a small pan here of there, is effusive.  There is also an article on Fleming's final curtain call.  Other reviews are equally enthusiastic.

Most operas I have seen were live performances, and they do feel different.  A clear example was people just walked out after the screening, there was no way to show appreciation to the singers.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

New Jersey Symphony – Xian Zhang, conductor; Jennifer Koh, violin. May 11, 2017.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC.  Tier 2 (Seat C123, $38).

Overture to Cosi fan tutte, K. 588 (1789-1790) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1902-1904, rev. 1905) by Sibelius (1865-1957).
Symphony No. 9 in C Major, “The Great,” D. 944 (1825-26) by Schubert (1797-1828).

We originally had tickets to this concert as part of the Red Bank series, but changed the date as Anne will be away, leaving Friday.

We ended up sitting in Tier 2.  Despite the house’s claim that the acoustics in Prudential Hall is great, I found it rather muted.  The artists seemed to be playing at a far greater distance than they appeared.

The Mozart overture worked out well enough.  It had the lightness and crispness that I like to hear in a Mozart composition, especially for a comedy like this opera.  While this was the earliest of the three works on the program tonight, this overture was the last one to find itself in the NJSO repertoire.  (Probably nothing more significant than an interesting fact.)

I was quite looking forward to the violin concerto, which is one of my favorites (but then I have many favorite violin concertos).  And this would be the first time I got to hear Jennifer Koh.

Perhaps it is the acoustics problem mentioned before, I found the performance not to be particularly exhilarating.  Her technique was superb, and there seemed to be no technical challenge that she didn’t overcome with ease, an example is how she breezed through the cadenza in the first movement.  Her intonation had to be as good as any violinist I have heard in a live performance, which is not easy for the rapid pitch and position changes this piece requires.  However, I often had to strain to pick out the solo violin from the orchestra, which given my familiarity with the piece shouldn’t be necessary.

And it’s not because she wasn’t into it.  A couple of bow hairs broke during the first movement, and she tried to yank them loose after the movement, nearly dropping the bow.  The other was how much her head shook during the performance; it was constant, and made me wonder how she managed to keep the violin pinned under her chin.  In searching the web about what violin she uses, I could only find reference to a Strad which had been on loan to her for 13 years was returned to the foundation, and how she misses it.  Her current violin sounded great, when I could hear it.

The Program Notes describes the orchestra as having a “rather subordinate” role.  I suspect many in the orchestra would disagree, as do I.  It played a near-equal, if not equal, part in the concerto as far as I can tell.  (By the way, this view is shared by the Wikipedia writeup on the concerto.) The Notes also fails to mention the wistfulness in the music of the composer’s not being able to excel as a violin virtuoso; that perhaps is a subjective judgment.

All misgivings aside, it was a beautiful performance of a great violin concerto.  I just wished I had a better seat, or that my ears were not still clogged up from my recent travels.

Xian Zhang looking on as Jennifer Koh takes her bow after performing Sibelius's Violin Concerto.

Schubert’s “Great” Symphony lives up to a name, lasting a good 50 or so minutes.  The four movements are (i) Andante – Allegro, ma non troppo; (ii) Andante con moto; (iii) Scherzo: Allegro vivace; and (iv) Finale: Allegro vivace.

I have heard this symphony on a couple of occasions, and am familiar with many of the melodies.  With Schubert one could usually expect interesting and subtle key changes.  All that we got today.

What I didn’t expect was to feel bored by the performance.  That may be too strong a sentiment, and I was in no danger of falling asleep.  But I kept wondering: how many times can he repeat this particular melody?  Many times.  Fortunately the theme usually changed when I began mumbling “this is too many repeats.”  Looking back over my notes for prior performances, I didn’t feel this way at all.  And I couldn’t really find fault with how the orchestra played, they were precise, the sound was good, and they responded to the conductor well.  I listened to parts of the symphony on YouTube afterwards, with the music score, and didn’t feel the same monotony I felt at the live concert.  What gives?

Zhang conducted with the usual gusto.  Worked quite well for the Sibelius and the Schubert.  I do wonder if that was necessary in the case of Mozart: I would think the conductor role here is to rein in the orchestra to ensure a light and crisp performance.

I toyed with the idea of going to tonight’s Red Bank performance, but decided against it as I needed to get ready to leave town tomorrow.