Saturday, December 02, 2017

New York Philharmonic – Gianandrea Noseda, conductor; Frank Huang, violin. November 26, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 3. (Seat HH114, $56).

Program
Suite from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (190304, arr. 1908?) by Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), arr. M. Steinberg
Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61 (1880) by Saint-Saens (1835-1921).
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1935-36, rev. 1938) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

We got tickets to the concert because of scheduling problems.  New York Philharmonic will now only give you back the value you paid if you swap concerts. In this case they were offering $59 tickets for Orchestra 2 tickets, but wanted to charge full price if swapped ticket value was used.  Hence these tickets towards the back of the orchestra.

They were actually not bad seats acoustics wise, even though they were a bit far from the stage.

For me the main draw was the Saint-Saens concerto, which I listened to a lot during my younger days, and also attempted a few passages.  In my opinion Huang did a much better job with this than he did with the Franck concerto.  The piece contains many challenges for the violinist, one is the long passage of harmonics at the end of the slow movement.  To do good harmonics required a precise spread of the fingers and bowing close to the bridge, if memory serves.  Easy enough if it is one note, not so easy with multiple measures. Huang dispatched them with ease. I did think the whole piece started a bit slow, but things got on track soon afterwards.

Curtain call after performance of the Saint-Saen's Violin Concerto.

The Legend of the Invisible City is an opera written by Rimsky-Korsakov during 1903-04, and the composer’s son-in-law Maximilian Steinberg extract the suite from it a few years later.  The opera has of course a story associated with it, and the markings for the suite are (i) Prelude – Hymn to Nature; (ii) Fevroniya’s Wedding Procession – Invasion of the Tatars; (iii) The Battle of Kerzhenets; and (iv) Fevroniya’s Glorious End – The Ascension to the Invisible City.  Some of the movements were evidently played without break, so I couldn’t quite track the music with the outline.  The opera may be worth seeing, although it is not staged that much outside of Russian, the suite definitely is not.  It was performed twice in New York Philharmonic history, in February 1994.

I was quite sure I had heard Rachmaninoff’s third symphony before, but couldn’t find any entry in this blog.  (The last NY Phil performance was in 2003.) It did sound familiar, and the Dies Irae of the third movement was barely discernable.  The three movements are (i) Lento – Allegro moderato – Allegro; (ii) Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro vivace – Tempo come prima; and (iii) Allegro – Allegro vivace – Allegro.

So the concert consisted a popular violin concerto sandwiched between two rather obscure pieces.  I nonetheless enjoyed it.

I was surprised to see a stool placed on the podium.  While Noseda sat on it on occasion, his conducting continued to be quite energetic.

The New York Times review is very positive, even though it started with a tongue-in-check description that the programming was a “mild adventure.”  He explained that Noseda had back surgery recently.

Drive into and out of New York City was quite straightforward.  We again opted for takeout food, this time from the Chinese place on Amsterdam.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Metropolitan Opera – Ades’s The Exterminating Angel. November 21, 2017.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony (Seat B115, $92.50).

Story.  The setting is a mansion in a large city suggestive of Mexico City during the 1960s.  Strange things happen at a dinner party hosted by Lucia and Edmundo Nobile.  First the butler and two maids escape, along with some other servants.  The whole plot is surreal, with a dancing bear and lambs (which get slaughtered).  Other things that happen (which may or may not be important) include: Blanca performing at the piano, lovers Eduardo and Beatriz retreat to a private room but eventually commit suicide, there is no water so the guests break a pipe, a hand that wanders around on stage, mobs try to storm the house, soldiers appear to stop them.  During all these events the guests try but fail to leave the mansion, and are forced to stay the night.  They eventually feel it is necessary to sacrifice the host but stop because they realize they are back in the same places they were the night before.  They manage to cross the threshold, but something bad happens.


Conductor – Thomas Ades. The Hosts: Edmundo de Nobile – Joseph Kaiser, Lucia – Amanda Echalaz; Their Guests – Leticia – Audrey Luna, Leonara – Alice Coote, Silvia de Avila – Sally Matthews, Francisco de Avila – Iestyn Davies, Blanca Delgado – Christine Rice, Alberto Roc – Rod Gilfry, Beatriz – Sophie Bevan, Eduardo – David Portillo, Raul Yebenes – Frederic Antoun, Colonel Alvaro Gomez – David Adam Moore, Senor Russell – Kevin Burdette, Doctor Carlos Conde – Sir John Tomlinson; The Staff: Julio – Christian van Horn, Lucas – John Irvin, Enrique – Ian Koziara, Pablo – Paul Corona, Meni – Mary Dunleavy, Camila – Catherine Cooke, Servants – Andrea Coleman & Marc Persing.  Outside the House: Padre Sanson – Jeff Mattsey, Yoli – Lucas Mann.

The actual synopsis is over two pages long.  I read it several times and still couldn’t make any sense of it.  The opera is based on Luis Bunuel’s “classic” 1962 film of the same name.  The lady sitting next to us told us she watched the movie before this performance, and that the opera hewed close to the plot of the movie.

My overall conclusion was: a plot I don’t get, music I don’t get, and – with seats in the balcony – roles I can’t tell apart.  None of that probably mattered.  I would draw a parallel with a Dali painting.  If you look at it once, you wonder what he is trying to say.  You look at it for a long time, you begine to find out what the “hidden objects” are in the painting, but there is no hope of trying to make sense out of it.  The Playbill does contain this statement about the film: “… defies attempts at systematic analysis and even seems to denounce the need for answers as one of society’s many pathologies.”  I can try to sound deep and link all this to post-modernism, but it would be a waste of time.

To me the most unfortunate part is the score seems to demand a lot from the musicians.  It goes without saying that the music is atonal, but what was unexpected was how high the voices had to reach.  Of course the singers could be doing random notes and few in the audience would notice.  The applause was quite enthusiastic, and the house was quite full.

I had a prior encounter with Ades’s music – Three Studies from Couperin.  I liked it, per my blog. I am not sure I would recommend this opera to anyone, but not quite ready to discourage someone from going.

 There are 15 solo roles in this opera.

Thomas Ades taking a bow.

The New York Times review, however, is glowing, going so far as to say “if you go to a single production this season, make it this one.”  Reading it did jog my memory: the chandeliers in the auditorium were used as part of the set; and Audrey Luna was the coloratura soprano.  There is another New York Times article contains a discussion on the opera.


Saturday, November 04, 2017

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin; Kelly O-Connor, mezzo-soprano. October 31, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat X103, $66.25).

Program – Bernstein’s Philharmonic, A Centennial Festival
Boundless (Homage to L.B.) by Roukens (b. 1982).
Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp, and Percussion (1953-54) by Berstein (1918-1990).
Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah (1942) by Bernstein.

We have been in the Boston area since mid-October.  I needed to take care of a few things back home and took advantage of the reduced-price offer for this concert.  This is a multi-week event celebrating Bernstein’s centennial (one could argue the celebration should be held next year, as Bernstein was born in 1918.)  We hadn’t planned on any of these concerts, our plans to be out of town was one factor, but my general lack of interest in Bernstein’s music was another.  This concert – or rather the Program Notes – certainly added quite a bit to my knowledge of Bernstein as a composer.

The other thing I didn’t expect was Gilbert was to be the conductor.  He came out to tremendous applause from the audience.  He asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for the victims of the morning’s terrorist attack.

Joey Roukens is a young Dutch composer who wrote this piece on commission from the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and its premiere was conducted by Gilbert.  The piece consists of three movements - manically, glacially, propulsively – played without break.  The changes in tempo was so obvious that not much guesswork was required.  Between the annotator’s notes and the “composer’s words” segment one could get a pretty good picture of what Roukens is trying to say.  To me the first movement has a strong dose of jazz, the second reasonably successfully evoked Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Adagietto, and the last movement was a free for all.  The composition probably is more nuanced than that, but the highest compliment I can give it would be that it can be passed off as a Bernstein piece to folks that are not Bernstein scholars.

Also, the piece was designed as a companion piece to the Serenade, with very similar instrumentation.  There are a few major differences though: no solo violin, a larger set of percussion instruments, and the use of a keyboard.

The Serenade was modeled after Plato’s Symposium with dialogs from different characters: (i) Phaedrus: Pausanias (Lento – Allegro marcato); (ii) Aristophanes (Allegretto); (iii) Eryximachus (Presto); (iv) Agathon (Adagio); and (v) Socrates: Alcibiades (Molto tenuto – Allegro molto vivace – Presto vivace).  The work was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in memory of the deceased conductor.  There is a lot of discussion whether Bernstein tried to fit his music into the titles, or the inspiration did come of the speeches made by the individuals.  Since I also know little about Plato, I didn’t try to find out which argument was correct.

I remember having trouble with Joshua Bell’s playing on several occasions, most on intonation issues with familiar pieces. Today I had no reservations at all that he did a great job.  The piece is not overtly difficult, but calls for many double stops and high notes.  Bell did them well.  There was a movement (iv, I believe) that was essentially a duet with the cello, and Bell went to Carter Brey to thank him at the end, well and good.  I noticed that he ignored Huang, wonder if that was an oversight or on purpose.

Carter Brey being acknowledged at the conclusion of Bernstein's Serenade. 

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 is based loosely on the story of Jeremiah and his Lamentations.  Indeed the first sketches Bernstein made was a “lamentation” for soprano and orchestra while he was still at Harvard.  When the work was premiered, Bernstein provided some notes for it.  “Prophecy” is to parallel the intensity of the prophet’s pleas with his people, “profanation” is a scherzo describing the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and the people, and “lamentation,” set to Hebrew poetic text, is a more literary conception of the cry of Jeremiah.

The Playbill says the piece lasts about 27 minutes; it lasted perhaps 22.  I didn’t hear a break between the first and second movements, and was wondering why the soloist would come out for the second movement – and I was sure I didn’t doze off.  O’Connor generally did well, although the full orchestra drowned her out on occasion.

Kelly O'Connor taking a bow.

Most people who know anything about Bernstein know he shot onto the conducting scene by substituting for Bruno Walter on short notice in a nationally broadcast concert.  So people paid a lot of attention when this Symphony was premiered a couple of months later, with the Pittsburgh Symphony, in its hometown.  The performance got uniformly great review, and Bernstein became an instant composing conductor (or the other way around, as Salonen often debates.)

I guess the life lesson here is one should always try to be well prepared as there is no telling what opportunities would come along.

Attendance at this concert (last of five in this series) was quite good; I am sure the discount helped.  The people next to me didn’t stay for the second half, so I moved one over, which gave me an excellent view of the stage.

The New YorkTimes reviewer loved the concert.  The review also contains some useful details of the pieces.

I took the train in.  The concert ended early enough that I made the 9:38 pm train back, so I was home a little after 11 pm.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

New Jersey Symphony – Xian Zhang, conductor; Alban Gerhardt, cello. October 14, 2017.

Count Basie Theater, Red Bank, NJ. (Balcony, Seat E111, $38).

Program
Musica celestis (1990, arr. 1991) by Kernis (b. 1960).
Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33 (1876) by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, “Pastoral,” Op. 68 (1808) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Tonight’s concert was the first of the Red Bank series this season.  My expectations on attendance were so low that, even with an entire section in the balcony unoccupied except for one row (ours), I thought the turn-out was okay.  The orchestra section seemed quite full, which was good.  We moved to the second row of our section so we could have more leg room.

With the exception of the first piece, which was premiered by NJSO in this series of concerts, the program can be characterized as comfort food, which was quite okay with me as I was not looking for a lot of intellectual challenge.

The Tchaikovsky piece is described as the closest thing to a concerto that Tchaikovsky wrote for the cello.  It certainly was difficult enough, at times calling for fingering that went higher than the fingerboard, if I observed correctly.  However, structured as a theme, seven variations, and two cadenzas, it would never be mistaken for a concerto.  Perhaps a very long (at 18 minutes) movement.

I enjoyed the piece as consisting of nice tunes, with some intellectual challenge in trying to follow the structure, and a showcase for the virtuosity of the soloist.  This was the first time we saw Gerhardt, and he came through brilliantly, working very well with the orchestra.  There were a few intonation problems during the fast and high-pitch runs.  Given the spacing between notes for a cello, I wonder if it is possible to get every note correct under such circumstances.

I looked and listened to the music before the concert, and was surprised to see what I heard (from YouTube) was quite different from the score I had.  I do not know if tonight’s performance also incorporated a lot of artistic freedom.

Gerhardt and Zhang at conclusion of Tchaikovsky's Variations.

Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is familiar to many.  Zhang did say a few things beforehand: Beethoven was an “angry” man who would escape to the woods to calm down; she also described what the movements were trying to depict; and asked some musicians to demonstrate the birds and thunder.  I also read that this is one symphony where the sudden contrasts so characteristic of Beethoven are kept to a minimum, more so than his “even-numbered” symphonies.

I am sure I knew all that, but it was good to have all that refreshed for this performance.  This was one of the few occasions that I could just sit there and let the music take over.  Gerhardt was actually sitting at the rear of the cello section playing along.

Gerhardt sat in the cello section during the Beethoven symphony.  Zhang patted his shoulder as acknowledgement during curtain call.

The program led off with Aaron Jay Kernis’s arrangement of his own string quartet.  It was quite easy to follow, although LiveNote would again be very useful.  The thing I found curious was I seemed to hear many more than five voices at several instances (there was also a bass section.)

The National Anthem was not played, so it was probably reserved only for the season-opening concert.


As usual, getting to and leaving Red Bank were straight-forward affairs.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

New York Philharmonic – Paavo Jarvi, conductor; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano. October 12, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Y105, $82).

Program
Gambit (1998, rev. 1999) by Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958).
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 (1926; rev. 1927/41) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 (1912-19) by Sibelius (1865-1957).

Andsnes is the New York Philharmonic Artist-in-Residence for this season, and this was the first time I heard this Norwegian pianist perform.

No. 4 isn’t one of the most-heard concertos by Rachmaninoff, and it is quite different from the other concertos written by the composer (including the Variations) in that it is less Romantic- and less virtuoso-sounding.  So one doesn’t go for the melodies or the fireworks, but for the structure and texture.  From the Playbill: “a work very much of its time, incorporating not only remnants of late Romanticism but also some sounds more associated with Ravel and Gershwin, reflecting Rachmaninoff’s musical curiosity and evolving style.”  Evidently the bad press it garnered at the premiere – with Stokowski leading the Philadelphia Orchestra – led Rachmaninoff to eventually cut short the music by about 200 measures.

Andsnes had a business-like manner about him; his posture didn’t change much no matter what type of passage he was playing.  The orchestra – which supposedly was almost never silent – acted as a good complement to the soloist.  Not having heard this before, I had no idea where the music was going.  Only thing that made it characteristically Rachmaninoff was how the movement ended, somewhat abruptly.  The markings for the movements are simple: Allegro vivace, Largo, and Allegro vivace.

Tha audience’s attempt to applaud after the first movement was ignored by the conductor, which was a good thing.  Andsnes played an encore.

Even though this isn’t Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto, I did attend the concert when it was most recently performed: in November 2015 with Trifonov as the soloist.  Even though it wasn’t the most memorable Trifonov concerto I heard, my remarks in that blog were more positive.  And I also had more to say about the music itself …

Andsnes and Jarvi at conclusion of Rachmaninoff.

Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony is also one of the less-played symphonies by the composer.  It was commissioned to celebrate Sibelius’s fiftieth birthday, and premiered on that day with the composer conducting the Helsinki Municipal Orchestra.  The symphony went through two major revisions; the standard version heard nowadays was first performed on October 21, 1921.

This symphony is not like other Sibelius symphonies I am familiar with.  With all the three movements in major keys, it is downright sunny (or course we are talking Finnish sunny here.)  One reason I love Sibelius’s symphonies is how he teased out the melodies, here the statements were relatively straightforward.

Interestingly enough (or disturbing), I also heard this symphony the last time it was performed by the New York Philharmonic: in November 2013, with Salonen conducting. I had a chance to read the score before the concert, and it is quite complex with the changes in tempo and keys.  Paavo Jarvi managed to do this without the score.  The movements are (i) Tempo molto moderato – Allegro moderato; (ii) Andante mosso, quasi allegretto; and (iii) Allegro molto – Misterioso.

Curtain call after Sibelius.

Perhaps you can’t really do a Finnish piece without also programming something from Salonen, who is the Artist-in-Residence, after all.  Today’s piece was written about 20 years ago, and was dedicated to Magnus Lindberg on his 40th birthday.  (So two birthday dedications in tonight’s program.)  The composer quoted some of Lindberg’s music in this tribute.  Even with a (short) program description by Salonen, I kept asking the question “why hasn’t NY Phil introduced LiveNote already?”

On paper this program should be very interesting, with the two program highlighting less popular works by Rachmaninoff and Sibelius and a lead-in by a well-regarded living composer.  I didn’t walk away inspired.

Pasted on my seat was a gift from New York Philharmonic: trading cards featuring the “all-star” cast members Kerry McDermott, Markus Rhoten, and Liang Wang.  There were quite a few no-show subscribers, I wish I had swiped their gifts.  I am sure a full set would sell for a good dollar (I do mean one dollar.)

The New York Times Review has a more detailed description of the Rachmaninoff Concerto and identified the encore as in Impromptu by Sibelius.  Interestingly, he had nothing to say about Gambit other than that the performance was “dazzling.”

We drove into New York a bit early to exchange another MET concert (this is the third one out of our seven in the series, more changes to come, no doubt.)  Dinner was take out eaten in the car.


Sunday, October 08, 2017

New Jersey Symphony – Xian Zhang, conductor; Jeremy Denk, piano. October 7, 2017.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC.  Orchestra (Grand Tier Seat E5, $36.)

Program
Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 (1800-01) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73 (1809) by Beethoven.
Symphonie fantastique, Op 14 (1830) by Berlioz (1803-1869).

This was an unplanned concert.  Anne had commitments at church for the evening, so I found myself with some free time on my hands.  There were scattered seats available when I bought the ticket at around 3 pm.  Indeed today’s attendance was one of the best I have seen for the NJSO – certainly a good start for the season.

Being the season opener, there was a reception at the NJPAC lobby beforehand, so the concert started a bit late.  The 5-minute overture allowed a further buffer in case people lingered a bit too long at the reception.

The Creatures of Prometheus was Beethoven’s only ballet composition.  While popular during its early years, it is now known mostly for its overture and finale.  Today was the first time I heard it.  It helped to settle the audience, and served as a good warm-up for the orchestra.  I am still bothered by the reviewer’s comment that last year’s opener lacked imagination.  In that regard it would have been better to substitute a more contemporary piece.  If that had been done, tonight’s program would have been a grander open than that of The Philadelphia Orchestra.

We saw Jeremy Denk at the Mostly Mozart Festival a couple of years ago, playing a Mozart concerto.  He certainly has garnered quite a few awards (including MacArthur and Avery Fisher), so I wonder why he is not heard as often as some of the other pianists.

It was an enjoyable performance.  My seat, in the last row of the orchestra section, had reasonable dynamics and a good view of the soloist.  The sound came over clearly, and the concerto sounded majestic as it should.  Except for a couple of passages, the balance was great between the soloist and the orchestra.

He played a simple encore.  In the vein of not being able to tell good from bad, I thought I could do equally well.
  

Jeremy Denk taking a bow.

Whenever I get to listen to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, I express my appreciation of this pre-concert talk I attended many years ago that explained to me how the “idee fixe” and “dies irae” themes were used in the composition.  With that as background I get even more from each additional reasoning.  Tonight was no exception; it was enjoyable imagining the story told by each of the movements.  The last movement describes Berlioz in a crazed state, with demons and witches gathering for the death scene.  I joked with my neighbor that calling the performance grotesque was actually a compliment.

The orchestra had many extras for this piece.  There were four timpanists (two sets of drums,) four bassoons, two tubas, and two harps.  I also notice Stephen Fang, who used to be associate principal cello, is no longer on the roster.  He was on leave last season.

After performance of Berlioz.

While the performance was generally good, there were some stretches where I wasn’t sure where it was going.  That is only so because my expectations were extremely high.

To my surprise, the orchestra started the whole evening with the National Anthem.  I wonder if that is a new thing, or just something that happens at the beginning of the season.  We’ll find out next Saturday when I will attend a concert in Red Bank.

I was glad to have gone.  I wore a polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers.  And I didn’t feel out of place at all.


Being in the last row also allowed me to get back to the parking lot very quickly, before a line formed to exit the facility.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Philadelphia Orchestra – Yannick Nezet-Sequin, conductor; Paul Jacobs, organ; Emanuel Ax, piano. October 6, 2017.

Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center.  Orchestra (Seat R11, $55.30).

Program
Resilience, for organ and orchestra (2015) by Oquin (b. 1977).
Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595 (1788-1791) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1877) by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

[Note: A couple of paragraphs were added on October 8.]

I mentioned to David Y that one of the Big Five orchestras I hadn’t heard live was the Philadelphia Orchestra.  For the current season he subscribed to five concerts, with three conducted by Nezet-Sequin.  We decided to join them for tonight’s – turns out it was the first subscription concert of the season – and one in May.  While the most expensive seats in this venue cost over $100, our seats at $55 were quite good. Being on the left side of the hall, we had a good view of the soloists as they went about their business.

David Y also relayed reports that the musicians complained about acoustics on the stage, in that it was difficult for the double basses to hear the violins.  We certainly could hear the parts very well.  Certainly the violins, which were closest to us; but also the cellos and double basses, who were at the other end of the stage.

 Oquin on stage after performance of his work "Resilience."  Nezet-Sequin and Jacobs look on from behind.

 Inside Verizon Hall.  The longest pipes of the organ measure 32 feet.

Screen grab of LiveNote.  A line would move along the columns to let the audience know where the music is at.  There is also short concurrent description of the piece as it progressed in real time.

Resilience was first premiered on the West Coast, by the Pacific Symphony in 2016.  Playbill says the work sees its East Coast premiere in these concerts.  Left unanswered was the question if the work traveled here by land or by air.

For a few years now PO has introduced this App LIVENOTE which streams information onto cell phones in real time; yes, as in during the music performance.  LIVENOTE was on for Resilience.  Perhaps because of that, the music made a lot of sense to me.  The flip side was some of my attention was diverted to the screen, and I have forgotten completely what the music sounded like – and I am typing this less than 24 hours from the concert.  I do agree with the following sentiments from Playbill: (i) the music is celebratory; and (ii) both the organ and the orchestra are powerful instruments.  The problem with modern music is that each piece is performed so infrequently that the typical audience member will seldom have the opportunity to hear it multiple times, thus the understanding and appreciation can only remain on a superficial level.  I do remember the cadenza by the organist that consists only of pedal notes.  It is amazing that two shoed feet can be so agile and produce such crisp notes.  Oquin was in the audience and came on stage at the conclusion.

Ax was described by Nezet-Sequin as a “good friend” of the orchestra and himself.  On many occasions Gilbert has used similar terms with regard to the New York Philharmonic.  I suspect Ax is probably considered such by many orchestras and their conductors.  From my observations he seems to be very easy-going; of course I have no direct knowledge of that.

In the introduction Nezet-Sequin also described the sunny nature of the concerto, even though it was completed in the year Mozart died.  I always find these remarks “interesting” in that in all likelihood Mozart had no inkling that he would die later that year, so he wasn’t going to be writing about his impending death.

In any case, this was certainly an “excellent” performance, in the sense that I enjoyed it fully.  The markings of the movements were simple enough: Allegro, Larghetto, and Allegro.  The last movement is a rondo.

Ax and Nezet-Sequin after performance of the Mozart concerto.

We heard Tchaikovsky’s Fourth last year performed by the NJSO, with Zhang Xian conducting.  I don’t recall that as a particular awesome experience, and in re-reading my blog just now, characterizing it as “a competent orchestra playing some well-known passages by following the dynamics markings faithfully”.  Tonight’s performance was certainly memorable, my remark to Anne was both Yannick and Xian go through a lot of motion, but Yannick seems to elicit a better response from PO.  Anne’s counter was the way she remembered it the NJSO did much better with the pizzicato movement, and I agree with her.  I wonder if that was the orchestra or the alleged bad acoustics of the auditorium.  I was also quite sure either the flute or the piccolo jumped the gun a bit and came in a measure early.

The audience started to applaud at the conclusion of the first movement.  If any movement is worthy of such a gesture, this would be one of them.  Nezet-Sequin stopped it cold with a swing of his baton.  Others should emulate this gesture.

A search of my blog returned three results for Nezet-Sequin, conducting operas at the Met (of course he will assume the post of music director in a few years.)  We also attended a pre-concert talk by PO’s assistant conductor Kensho Watanabe.  His interview with Oquin was mostly about the sound Nezet-Sequin wanted for a particular passage; he also had the cellist Richard Harlow demonstrate this newly discovered phrasing of the slow Tchaikovsky movement that only a Ph D musicologist would love.  I couldn’t tell the difference.  Anne on the other hand, found the talk very informative.

Anne also thought we had heard this orchestra before, decades ago, when they were still in their old home (they moved to the current location in 2001.)  I vaguely remembered they would start a concert with the National Anthem, which they did again today.  Philadelphia and Boston must be constant vying to lay claim to where America started.

We left our house a bit before 3 pm to allow enough time to visit areas around Temple University and Girard College – the latter is a 168-year-old prep school for the economically disadvantaged.  Dinner was at Max Brenner’s, with Vivien and David.  Parking in Philadelphia is relatively inexpensive at $11, prepaid.  Turns out there was more traffic when we left the concert after 10 pm.  There were many bars and clubs in this ritzy area of town, and quite a few people appeared drunk already.

Metropolitan Opera – Offenbach’s Les Contes D’Hoffmann. October 4, 2017.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat CC23, $25).

Story.  Hoffmann the poet is in love with Stella.  A letter she wrote to Hoffmann was intercepted by Lindorf.  After arguing with Lindorf in Luther’s Tavern, Hoffmann has a sense of impending disaster and begins to tell the story of his three past loves.  The first love is Olympia, a mechanical doll created by Spalanzani.  With a pair of glasses Hoffmann thinks she is Spalanzani’s daughter, and is enchanted.  His dance with Olympia gets more frenzied until Olympia is torn apart, and Hoffmann is mocked for falling for a machine.  The second love is Antonia who is so weak that she has to stop singing, which she loves.  However, Dr. Miracle conjures up a vision of her mother to convince her to continue singing; she cannot resist and sings until she collapses.  Dr. Miracle coldly pronounces her dea.  The third love is the courtesan Giulietta.  While Hoffmann originally denies any interest in her, he is eventually seduced by Giulietta, who also steals his reflection.  He is eventually abandoned by Giulietta.  After finishing the story, Hoffmann realizes that the three women are different aspects of Stella, and learns that he should find consolation in his creative genius.  Present through the entire opera is his Muse disguised as his friend Nicklausse to help him along the journey.

Artists for Les Contes D’Hoffmann.

Conductor – Johannes Debus.  Vittorio Grigolo, Erin Morley, Anita Hartig, Oksana Volkova, Laurent Naouri, Tara Erraught, Christophe Mortagne, Mark Schowalther, Robert Pomakov, Olesya Petrova, David Crawford.

Anne and I will be away quite a bit starting mid-October, so I had to go to New York to exchange tickets for a couple of shows.  So I decided to get a rush ticket for this show, which was in our original plan.  Anne had teaching duties and couldn’t go.

Row CC is the third row from the back, but the acoustics was very good (I sat in CC15 for Act 1 and CC19 for Acts 2 and 3).  All the singers’ voices came through beautifully.  Other than for some passages in Act 3, Grigolo’s singing seemed effortless – a regular day in the office, so to speak.

I had a general idea what the opera was about, and knew a couple of tunes from it (the doll’s aria and barcarolle).  The other part I knew was the mechanical doll, which needed to be wound up a couple of times during the doll’s aria, and ended her aria with repeated mechanical acknowledgement bows.  The story is simple enough, and the way it was staged tonight - Franz Kafka and the era of the 1920s provide a dramatic reference point, per the Playbill – one could also interpret the three loves as hallucinations, with Hoffmann drifting out of reality after the prolog and returning for the epilog.

What I didn’t quite expect was the seeming lack of energy throughout most of the program.  Yes, I go to operas mostly for the music, and certainly enjoyed what I heard tonight.  However, when the Playbill tries to play up the dramatic aspects (e.g., in its reference to Kafka) it also raises expectations which in my opinion weren’t met.  Of course I cannot tell if the opera is fundamentally flawed as drama, or tonight’s performance was not up to standard.

Curtain Call.  From the left: Giulietta, Antonia, Debus (conductor), Grigolo, Erraught, and Morley.

There were quite a few empty seats in the auditorium.  The two rows behind me had very few people sitting in them.  The lady a few seats over was really into the comedic aspects of the story, laughing out a bit too loud at a few instances.

The New YorkTimes review I found talks about all three operas during this season’s opening week.  While the reviewer had good things to say about the singers, he was worried if the Met has found a way out of its current slump.

I found out taking a picture of the “casting page” means I don’t have to do a lot of typing. So why did I still type the artists’ name, you ask?  I do that so if I do a search on the blog if I want to find out if I have heard a particular artist before.


Because of NJ Transit’s schedule, taking the train would mean getting home after 1 am.  Driving in wasn’t difficult, but traffic around Lincoln Center was surprisingly congested, and I had to circle around a few times before I found parking on Columbus Avenue.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Philippine Madrigal Singers. Mark Anthony A. Carpio, Artistic Director and Choirmaster. September 24, 2017.

St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral, Metuchen, NJ.  Nave ($25).

Program – A Musical Spiritual Journey



















LH from our church alerted us to this “excellent ensemble,”  she got enough people to go that we got a $5 discount off the $30 ticket.

The group, technically the University of the Philippine Madrigal Singers (Madz for short) has been around for over 50 years, and has performed widely internationally, and sung in front of dignitaries from Popes to Emperors to Presidents.

For today’s concert, most songs were sung a cappella, with guitar used on occasion.  As far as I could tell, the group didn’t use any sound amplification systems, although soloists and the guitar did make use of one.  LH and I were having a discussion of how many parts were needed to make such a rich sound.  I said four would be sufficient, she thought more was needed.  (I won that argument.)

The songs were mostly in English, with two in Latin (clear enough what these were trying to say) and two in Tagalog.  Google Translate couldn’t understand the first one (although it did know it was Filipino), and the second one was translated as “Prayer in Openess.”

While calling this a “spiritual journey” may be too much, there was quite a few Christian songs in the mix.  We were inside a cathedral, after all.  One song that was somewhat out of place was “Let It Be” by the Beatles.  (Technically “Mother Mary” would make it religious.)

No lyrics were included in the Program Notes, which was cleverly titled “Pray Bill” (or perhaps too trite.)  They would have added a lot to the spirituality of the program, in my opinion.  Words to several songs could be found on the web, and I appreciated them a lot more because of that.

Clever, cute, or too cute?  And is this copyright violation?

It is always amazing to hear how harmonious some ensembles sound, and Madz is no exception.  Not being a fan of this sort of music, that awe went away after a couple of songs.

The cathedral is huge, seating 1000 people per its website.  The event was very well attended, our seats were more than half way towards the back.  Today was an unusually warm fall day, so we appreciated the air-conditioning.  However, the constant drone given out by the cool air rushing from the vents meant the audience had trouble hearing soft passages, and on several occasions they began to applaud before the soft endings of the songs were finished.  While I can't fault the group for being seated during the performance, it did make seeing them difficult for those of us in the back.

Madz at curtain call.


The concert started at 4 pm, and concluded at 6.  Anne and I went to a local Chinese supermarket and picked out take-home dishes so she could start her 8 pm class on time.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Yuja Wang and Members of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. September 6, 2017.

HK Cultural Center Concert Hall.  Stalls (Seat D49, HK$480).

Program – Yuja and Friends: A Chamber Night.
Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (1861) by Brahms (1833-1897).
Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50 (1882) by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

Musicians
Yuja Wang, piano; Jing Wang, violin; Andrew Ling, viola; Richard Bamping, cello.

Between two concert performances with Hong Kong Philharmonic, Yuja Wang will perform in a chamber concert with several Hong Kong Philharmonic musicians.  The program is quite traditional (Brahms and Tchaikovsky), although each piece presents its set of technical and artistic challenges.

Both pieces were written as some sort of remembrance for the respective composer’s mentor.  In Brahms’s case it was for Robert Schumann, written in 1856.  It consists of four movements: Allegro; Intermezzo (Allegro ma non troppo – Trio – Animato); Andante con moto – Animato; Rondo alla Zingarese (Presto – Meno Presto – Molto Presto).  Plagiarizing the Program Notes, some of the characteristics of the piece are (i) having an intermezzo rather than the usual scherzo or minuet – although I am sure people would be okay if it is labeled as a scherzo; (ii) the “toy-soldier” theme in the third movement which is supposed to be the memorial; and (iii) the gypsy theme in the last movement marks the first time Brahms incorporates Gypsy elements in his work.

I listened to a YouTube performance of this (by a rather well-known quartet, but forget which one).  My reaction was somewhat of an “oh oh” as the piece was quite long (for today it was about 40 minutes); and I couldn’t quite make sense of it.

Tonight’s performance sounded much more coherent than how I remembered it.  The themes got passed from one instrument to another seamlessly, and the musicians came to the foreground and faded into the background naturally, complementing one another well.  I was impressed with the three Hong Kong Phil musicians.  The Program Notes also contained a brief mention of their biographies: Jian Wang is Chinese Canadian; Ling is a Hong Kong native, and Bamping is a Briton.  They were all good, and their instruments sounded superb.

The longer Tchaikovsky Trio (47 minutes) contains only two movements: Pezzo Elegiaco (Moderato assai – Allegro giusto); Tema con Variazioni – Variazione Finale e Code.  The story as described by the Program Note is a little incoherent.  Tchaikovsky was of the view that the instruments didn’t work well together and he was thus not ready to write music for this type of ensemble.  It took the persuasion of his patron Nadezhda von Meck to convince him to do so, after the death of his former mentor Nikolai Rubinstein, who had criticized Tchaikovsky earlier work – the second movement of his second piano concerto which was effectively a triple concerto.

The Program Notes describes the first movement as an expression of the sorrow at Rubinstein’s death, and the second movement – variations on a theme Rubinstein loved – episodic descriptions of Rubinstein’s live.  Tchaikovsky himself denied it.  The coda was a solemn funeral march.  I couldn’t quite track the variations.

Throughout the performance, Yuja simply let the music speak for itself.  She was just one of the voices, her flamboyant outfits (lime green and bright orange)  not reflected in her playing.

 Jiang Wang handing Yuja Wang a bouquet.  Notice the two empty sections in the concert hall.

Two empty rows in the main auditorium.


It was a rather long concert, but enjoyable.  I was surprised at the large number of empty seats, there were two sections that had no people at all.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Hong Kong Philharmonic – Jaap van Zweden, conductor; Yuja Wang, piano. September 2, 2017.

HK Cultural Center Concert Hall.  Balcony (Seat M123, HK$680).

Program
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat minor, Op. 23 by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).
The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

As Chung Chu remarked on my Facebook entry, this was a great program.  Indeed it is, with Yuja Wang as the soloist, at that.

Perhaps I was somewhat disappointed at the last HK Phil concert I attended (in April), and perhaps my expectations were again quite high (I know these are counter-arguments in a way), I was somewhat disappointed at the performance.

Working from memory, it was a performance by Wang that brought out the Ravel Piano Concerto (in F?) for me, and I was fascinated by how adept she was in performing an arrangement of Mozart’s piece (the K.545 Rondo?).  And I saw her performance of the Tchaikovsky on YouTube which was really good.  Today was a few years later, so I was really looking forward to enjoy this war horse.

Wang did manage to make the piece look easy; perhaps not “one day in the office” easy, but there was certainly no anxiety that she might miss a note (not that I would necessarily notice), or some other mishap.

After a thunderous applause, she played as encore a piece that seemed to have moving pedal points with embellishments around them.  Perhaps pianists would appreciate the virtuosity involved, I couldn’t quite get the why and what of it.

My main issue with the Tchaikovsky was how disjoint the piece sounded.  Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, the performance was like a series of unrelated themes or passages stitched together.  The orchestra’s simply lurched from section to section, with precision problems every now and then.  My first encounter with van Zweden was a Hong Kong Phil concert in 2012, when he was a few months in his post.  My remark that his ego exceeded his capability needs to be re-visited in light of his appointment to the New York Philharmonic; however, while Hong Kong Philharmonic remains a competent orchestra, it has not made great strides in the intervening years since took over as music director.

That unease was confirmed with the Rite of Spring performance.  The introduction by the bassoon was tentative, and it took me a while to get over it.  There were moments of brilliance, but the performance was again marked by more disjointness (is this a word?) than I would like.

The annotator’s decision to include the “program” of the ballet in the Program Notes was certainly very helpful.  The young mother sitting next to me was going through the program with her son as the music progressed.  By putting in references to the instruments (e.g., “the horns dance cheerfully”) he made the music very easy to follow along.  The rest of the Program Notes was pretty boiler-plate, though.

The ushers were very strict about the "no photos" policy, even though it wasn't plainly stated in the program.  This out-of-focus shot of Wang and van Zweden leaving was the only photo I took after the Tchaikovsky concerto.

A full orchestra was used for the Rite of Spring performance.  Notice the two sets of timpanis.

One gets criticized for commenting on Wang’s sense of fashion; but if I walk on the street with a beanie cap with peacock tail feathers attached (think Cher), am I not inviting or even expecting remarks from others?  After much thought, the most politically correct way to say is Wang has the confidence to think she can pull it off with an outfit that would equally belong on a beach.  Another thought is many young girls were brought to this concert so they can be inspired by Wang, I wonder how many would want to grow up and emulate her fashion sense.

So happens I also attended Hong Kong Philharmonic’s opening concert last year; there I debated if I wanted to go because of the obscure piece on the program, and I ended up really enjoying it.  For tonight I had no hesitation to get a ticket (and solicited Tim’s help to do so as the concert was rapidly selling out), yet I ended up with a real sense of disappointment.


To put things in perspective, I also bought a ticket to the chamber concert this coming Wednesday where Wang will be performing with HK Phil musicians.  And of course overall I think the concert is worth the money and the time.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Louis Langree, conductor; Kirill Gerstein, piano. August 15, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat D8, $50).

Pre-Concert Recital
Frauenliebe und -leben, Op. 42 (1840) by Schumann (1810-1856).
Susanna Phillips, soprano; Louis Langree, piano.

Program
Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann for piano solo (1854) by Brahms (1833-1897).
Piano Concerto in A minor (1841-45) by Schumann.
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1862-76) by Brahms.

The attendance for the pre-concert event was good, although not as good as the one at the last concert we attended.  And those that chose not to make it missed a good one.

First, I admit I am not one into art songs, so I usually just acknowledge them and go to the next piece.  And I also complain about the acoustics for voices against orchestras in this auditorium.  Perhaps due to the (particularly) weak-sounding piano, Susanna Phillip’s voice carried very well, from beginning to end of this 20-minute program.  She sang clearly, with the right mix of emotions, and told the story well.  One thing I am not sure about is how good her German is, I am quite sure she got the pronunciation of many words wrong.  Evidently Langree is a competent pianist (few conductors start out in life as one), although he could have pounded the keys a bit harder, in my opinion.

Schumann took all of two days to set eight of Adalbert von Chamisso’s poems into music after he learned all the legal challenges put up by Clara Wieck’s father were resolved.  “A Woman’s Love and Live” traces the narrator’s adult life of courtship, pregnancy, motherhood, and death of her husband.  The poems are: (i) Seit ich ihn gesehen (Since Seeing Him); (ii) Er, der Herrlichste von allen (He, the Most Wonderful of All); (iii) Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben (I Cannot Grasp It, Believe It); (iv) Du Ring an meinem Finger (Ring on My Finger); (v) Helft mir, ihr Schwestern (Help Me, Sisters); (vi) Susser Freund, du blickest (Sweet Friend, You Look); (vii) An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust (At My Heart, at My Breast); and (viii) Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan (Now Have You Caused Me My First Pain).  I found it a bit curious that the commentator saw the need to rationalize some of the non-gender-equal tone in the lyrics to accommodate the sensitivities of today’s audience.

Susanna Phillips, with Louis Langree looking on, after she sang the Schumann songs.

As noted both by Gerstein and Langree, the main program also threw Brahms and his relationship with the Schumann’s into the mix.

The variations were written by Brahms in 1854, a year of great difficult for Robert (he was already in an asylum) and Clara (pregnant with their seventh child); and Brahms was developing an infatuation for Clara, to boot.  A year earlier, Clara showed Brahms a set of variations she wrote based on a subject written by Robert.  Brahms then composed these variation with the inscription “Short variations on a theme by Him, dedicated to Her.”  By the time the music was published, it was certainly not short (lasting close to 20 minutes).  I don’t remember ever hearing it before, but it was quite enjoyable, and I am sure the enjoyment will increase as I get to know the music and its structure.  The Clara variations will be performed at another Mostly Mozart event.

The Schumann piano concerto was clearly a piece written for the virtuoso, and Gerstein delivered.  Our seats were on the right front part of the orchestra, so we saw mostly his face as he was playing, but the piano sound came through clearly.

For encore, Gerstein played the slow movement of a piano sonata composed by Clara but orchestrated by Robert .  The cello was the only instrument (exception for the last part where the timpani was added) used and Gerstein described it as a love duet between Clara and Robert.

Brahms’s first symphony took a mere 22 years, if one counts as the starting point Brahms’s first sketches for the work.  Much has been said about how this work was in the tradition of Beethoven’s Symphonies – including Brahms’s own remark “any ass can see that.”  I can certainly get that similarity, but do not have enough understanding of Beethoven’s symphonies to called this the “tenth.”  Except for the theme of the last movement, I was mostly unfamiliar with this work.

Our seats so close to the stage reminded me of some of the shortcomings of the orchestra.  Today it was hearing the individual string players “too clearly.”  The orchestra roster has a few impressive names: Cobb is NY Phil’s principal bass, Rhoten is the principal timpanist, Finkelshteyn is the principal cello of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Kirill Gerstein after the Schumann Piano Concerto.

Perhaps this is the summer season, or perhaps of my lower expectations, I really enjoyed this concert, not losing patience like I did with the last concert.


We had a simple dinner at Europan.

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.

Program
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)

Program
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.