Monday, January 23, 2017

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Christian Vasquez, conductor; Pinchas Zukerman, violin. January 22, 2017.

Mayo Performing Arts Center, Morristown, NJ.  Orchestra (Seat U5, $59.)

The School for Scandal Overture (1931) by Barber (1910-1981).
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 (1806) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, “Organ,” Op. 78 (1886) by Saint-Saens (1835-1921).

MPAC is one of the venues where NJSO performs, this would be our first attendance at this location.  The auditorium started as a movie theater, built in the 1930s, and was converted to a concert hall in the 80s.  It seats about 1300 people.  Today’s concert was better attended than a typical Red Bank concert.  Nonetheless, our row was quite empty, and we moved to U1 and U3.

Program describes the Barber piece as one of the rare Barber “zesty and animated” compositions.  The piece was written by Barber as his graduation exercise from Curtis, and was inspired by a satire of the same name by Robert Brinsley Sheridan.  For today, the piece’s main functions are to get the orchestra settled, and to give late-comers a chance to get seated.  Nonetheless, it was a delightful piece that was easy to like, and the orchestra sounded very good.

The narrow stage could only accommodate three pairs of first violins in the front row to make way for the soloist.  However, it was deep enough that the full orchestra fit comfortably on it.  Perhaps misreading the distance to the auditorium, the initial notes struck by the timpani were quite tepid.  As the long introduction progressed, it became the take shape Beethoven concerto that I expected to hear.

Zukerman’s Guarneri was well-suited for the intimate setting today.  Today’s performance was more warm- than brilliant-sounding, which was a pleasant change of pace.  Zukerman overall put in an excellent performance, but one with considerable flaws.

The most obvious problem is intonation.  I didn’t notice that with last week’s performance, but today there were quite a few places where he failed to hit the precise note.  There was one place that he couldn’t get the note to come out at all (I think it was a harmonic E.)  To his credit, he didn’t let that bother him, not in a noticeable way anyway.

To me the beautify of Beethoven is how he managed to make dramatic music with a highly structured composition of mostly scales and arpeggios.  There doesn’t need to be a lot of exaggerated playing for the story to come out.  This was the only performance I remember where there was a lot of drama.  While it didn’t necessary make it a bad performance, in my book it didn’t improve it either.

The piece was in general taken a bit too fast, especially the second movement, which I prefer to be much more meditative.

The fact that Zukerman managed some of the more difficult passages with ease would indicate the skills are still there.  Perhaps as one ages, being able to hear a pitch is different from being able to deliver it, and there might be an occasional lapse in concentration.

Despite these misgivings, I definitely would pay to hear Zukerman perform again.  Nowadays he brings a musicality accumulated over many years, which I appreciate.

Zukerman and Vasquez after Beethoven's Violin Concerto.

While I don’t recall having heard the entire Saint-Saens symphony before, many of the tunes sounded very familiar.  The Symphony is organized into two parts: Adagio-Allegro moderato-Poco adagio, and Allegro moderato-Presto-Maestoso-Allegro.  As the Programs Notes says, the start of the symphony hints of Dies Irae (frankly I wouldn’t have heard it without the suggestion), and the addition of the organ and piano makes for an interesting solemn and whimsical effect respectively.  Some of the passages with the piano sounded like they were lifted from Carnival of Animals.

Saint-Saens evidently led a rather charmed life, and was very popular during his lifetime.  With works like the Organ symphony, is there any doubt.

Today’s performance did a lot to assuage my worry that the NJSO standard has slipped a lot, which is a good thing.

This was the second of three programs curated by Zukerman, we won’t be able to attend the one next week due to our travels.

Christian Vasquez is a young Venezuelan conductor, and did both the Barber and Saint-Saens pieces without music.  He was faithful in keeping the beat, and yet managed to elicit good sounds and great precision from the orchestra.

We had tickets to the Princeton performance of this concert but couldn’t make it because of a last-minute decision to go to Boston for our granddaughter’s fourth birthday.  Swapping them to this concert was a breeze, and cost all of $5.  The drive both ways was easy.  We had dinner at The Cottage a couple of blocks away from MPAC before we drove back home.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Trio – Inon Barnatan, piano; Anthony McGill, clarinet; Alisa Weilerstein, cello. January 18, 2017.

Matthews Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center.  Balcony (Seat AA110, $27.)

Clarinet Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11 by Beethoven (1770-1827).
“Short Stories” by Hallman (b. 1979).
Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114 by Brahms (1833-1897).

Readers of this blog know that I am not keen on chamber music, that despite my having learned the standard Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms violin sonatas decades ago.  One of the reasons is I find them more difficult to appreciate.

Today’s performers are individually well-known.  We first heard Barnatan in 2015, and tonight was the fourth time we listened to him perform.  Weilerstein comes from a family of musicians, and she was awarded the MacArthur Prize a few years ago.  I remember enjoying her play Shostakovich’s cello concerto in Carnegie Hall.  McGill is the principal clarinet of New York Philharmonic, so we have seen him quite a bit.

Calling the compositions by Beethoven and Brahms Clarinet Trios is a bit unfair to the pianist and cellist, as they are by any measure equal partners.  I have some familiarity with what constitutes virtuosity in the piano and cello, and can say there are some difficult passages.  I can’t tell in the case of the clarinet, although McGill demonstrated how long a clarinetist can hold its breath (I keep remembering 38 measures during my Cornell Symphony days.)  In any case, the three musicians worked together very well.

The Beethoven movements are Allegro con brio; Adagio; and Tema: Pria ch’io l’impegno, Allegretto. For the Brahms piece: Allegro, Adagio, Andantino grazioso, and Allegro.

To demonstrate my lack of appreciation of chamber music, my overall remark of the two classical pieces is “they are nice, especially the slow Brahms movement.”  I can probably say a bit more if I think about it, but the Program contains good descriptions of the pieces.  Indeed, they were useful for me to grasp how the music is structured.

The Program also describes how Hallman came up to Weilerstein (after, of all pieces, a Shostakovich cello concerto performance) and said he would compose music for her.  Eventually this led to this being commissioned for the three artists, with tonight being the first performance of a nine-city premiere tour over 11 days.

The piece does contain some interesting constructs (for lack of a better term) and requires the artists to deliver their notes in a non-conventional way.  For instance, the cello played some of the notes so close to the bridge that it made a weird sound, and the pianist plugged at the strings at some point.  There may be something unusual with the clarinet, but again I couldn’t tell.

This piece is quite long, around 30 minutes by my estimate.  A little beyond the half-way mark I felt either the composer had nothing new to say, or at least I wasn’t interested anymore in what he wanted to say.  New “idioms” can only take you so far – and there are quite a few of them – but eventually the music needs to speak to the listener.

Not that the composer didn’t try to.  The markings for the five movements are (i) the Breakup, (ii) familial memories at a funeral, (iii) black-and-white noir: hardboiled with a heart of gold, (iv) regret is for the weak, and (v) the path of the curve.  The Program says “Mr. Hallman insists that no specific narratives are being invoked … each movement’s title is meant to serve as a prompt for the listener.  The listeners are called upon to imagine their own ‘story,’ inspired by the musical content of each movement and the prompt of the title.”  For me the titles could be randomly picked out of a hat, and the effect would be the same (mostly, anyway.)

McGill, Barnatan, and Weilerstein after performing the Hallman piece.

We had a light dinner before we headed out to Princeton.  Parking was right next to the venue.  On the way back we grabbed a quick bite at a Burger King.

Metropolitan Opera – Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. January 17, 2017.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony (Seat B6, $110.50).

Story.  The plot essentially follows that of the play, with a notable exception at the end.  When Romeo breaks into the Capulet family tomb and thinks that Juliet is dead, he takes a poison.  Before he dies, Juliet wakes up and the reminisce about their lives together.  After Romeo dies, Juliet stabs herself.

Conductor – Gianandrea Noseda; Tybalt – Diego Silva, Paris – David Crawford, Capulet – Laurent Naouri, Juliette – Diana Damrau, Mercutio – Elliot Madore, Romeo – Vittorio Grigolo, Gertrude – Kiana Montague, Gregorio – Jeongcheol Cha, Frere Laurent – Mikhail Petrenko, Stephano – Virginie Verrez, Benvolio – Tony Stevenson, The Duke of Verona – Oren Gradus.

This is the second of three blog entries I plan to do this (late) evening, so it will be a rush job.  The caveat here is I was not feeling well this day.  The story of Romeo and Juliet is relatively simple, and undoubtedly the opera’s plot is a simplified version, so there is no reason I couldn’t follow the plot along.  But I had some trouble with it, my condition either caused me to have lapses in attention, or simply made me a bit groggy.  Anne told me it was straightforward.  I still managed to enjoy it though.

First about the set.  This is a new production, and Anne told me she read somewhere it was elaborate, or something to that effect.  I beg to differ.  The scenes all revolve around a courtyard with one huge column, and a platform in the middle.  By giving it different accents, the audience is to think of them as sets for different scenes.  For example, when draped with a huge piece of cloth, it was the “honeymoon suite” (for lack of a better term.)  By bringing in some biers and lowering a gate, it was the Capulet family crypt.  And by crunching the white sheet around Juliet, it was supposed to be a wedding gown (that, actually was quite clever.)  Nothing wrong with the set, just don’t call it elaborate.  The other point made was the time was updated to the 18th century.  That may explain some of the costumes, but I’m not sure if it added anything to the overall effect.

Even in my compromised state, I really appreciated the singing.  While I heard Grigolo only once before (opposite Damrau in Massenet’s Manon), I am not surprised at all at how well he did.  His voice reached our balcony seats clearly, and he portrayed a very believable Romeo.  The role required quite a bit of agility, at one point he had to climb up the balcony part way, not an easy deed even with hand- and footholds.  Damrau did well, and certainly had a wider emotional range in her singing, but her voice was weaker, and often overshadowed by Grigolo’s in the several duets they sang together.  Sometimes I wonder if the stars try to compensate for each other’s weaknesses, or they each think he/she is the show; I got a bit of the latter this evening.

There are many nice solos and duets in this opera, yet the only one I can claim some familiarity with is the early solo “je veux vivre.”  If I had had the energy to do the preparation before the performance, I would have enjoyed the other solos and ensembles more, and appreciated the description in the Playbill, which was quite fascinating.  Perhaps next time.

Usually when I list the artists I would record only a few of the roles.  For today I listed everyone who appeared in the Playbill since I didn’t find one weak voice among them. Honestly, I don’t remember what lines – say – Benvolio sang, but whatever they were, they were well-done.  When I saw Virginie Verrez singing Stefano my first reaction was another of those female voices singing a young man’s role, but I was impressed with how well she did in Act III.

Curtain call.  Noseda flanked by Grigolo and Damrau.

The Playbill describes Gounod’s use of the orchestra to assist the voice in its mission to communicate ‘truth.’  That certainly was the case here.  The orchestra under Noseda performed very well.

If I had been more physically and mentally aware …

The New York Times review is based on the New Year’s Eve performance.  The reviewer had nothing but praises for the singers, complained a bit about the set, and scratched his head about the need to update the setting.  He is so taken with this Damrau/Grigolo duo that he ends the review with the sentence “What lies ahead for them at the Met? I’m ure Peter Gelb is already on the case.”

We drove in and had a simple meal at Europan.  Traffic was light both ways.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

New Jersey Symphony – Pinchas Zukerman, violin and conductor. January 14, 2017.

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

“Melodie” from Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher, Op. 42 (1878, Orch Glazunov) by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).
Serenade Melancolique, Op. 26 (1875) by Tchaikovsky.
Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48 (1880) by Tchaikovsky.
Symphony No. 4 in A Major, “Italian,” Op. 90 (1831-33, revised continuously) by Mendelssohn.

When you hear the names Zukerman and Tchaikovsky, you expect to hear some great music, with a heavy dosage of fireworks thrown in for good measure.  Thus I went to this concert with great expectations, and came away somewhat disappointed.

The evening started uneventful enough.  The two violin solos are nice enough, but one wouldn’t use them as virtuoso show pieces.  Indeed, one might be forgiven that these belong in a student recital rather than on a world (or national) stage.  I must, however, concede that the violin’s sound (a Guarnerius) is well-suited for a concert hall the size of Count Basie, and Zukerman managed some rich tones from the instrument.  It doesn’t have the brilliance and sharpness of a Strad, but for these two pieces, that would be unnecessary.

In any case, one could argue the pieces served as a great warmup for the ever-popular Serenade for Strings, a piece I know quite well from my high school days.  For a composition by Tchaikovsky, it is not particularly difficult, yet it contains many hummable tunes, and the constant give-and-take among the parts are delightful.

The performance tonight was in one word: flat.  There were some delightful moments, but I expected many more.  Technically, the orchestra wasn’t as precise as it should be.  It isn’t too much to expect a national orchestra to come in together even though there are changes in tempo.  Some of that blame must be placed at Zukerman’s feet.  He was more anticipatory in his movements, and seemed to expect the musicians to know when to come in after a pause.  I tried to follow along and found it difficult.  Given Zukerman’s experience as a violinist, violist, chamber musician, and a conductor, that was quite inexplicable.  As it was, the piece I most looked forward to listen to was the most disappointing (jumping the gun a little here.)

For the Mendelssohn piece Zukerman conducted in a more traditional manner.  And it was a much better performance.  I was surprised that Zukerman needed the score for the string quartet, and was equally surprised that he conducted this piece without one.

After the performance of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings.

The Symphony is light and refreshing, and the main melody of the second movement – supposed inspired by Mendelssohn observation of a sacred procession in Rome – is very hymn-like.  Overall it was a good performance.

The four movements of the Serenade are (i) Pezzo in forma di sonatina: Andante non troppo - Alegro moderato; (ii) Valse: Moderato - Tempo di valse; (iii) Elegie: Larghetto elegiaco; and (iv) Finale (Tema Russo): Andante - Allegro con spirito.  For the Symphony: (i) Allegro vivace; (ii) Andante con moto; (iii) Con moto moderato; and (iv) Saltarello: Presto.

A few caveats to this entry.  I am writing this after going to two additional concerts, and thus in a rush, and have forgotten some of my observations.  Speaking of which, if I were to drop one of the three recent concerts, this would be it despite my initial excitement about the artist and the composer.

This is part of the Winter Festival series curated by Zukerman.  We have tickets for the second concert this coming Sunday, he will perform Beethoven’s violin concerto.  Due to our travels we will miss the third one with Bach’s second violin concerto on the program.  I sure hope I will have a better report this Sunday.

Thus far the loss of Lacombe seems to have a negative effect on the orchestra.  Let’s hope Zhang will get it back in shape.  Also, the balcony section was quite empty, I am sure that didn't add to morale.

I did find a review at  The reviewer attended the previous night’s performance at NJPAC and had a lot of good things to say.  He did say the Mendelssohn performance wasn’t “one for the ages.”

Saturday, January 14, 2017

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Stephen Hough, piano. January 12, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat X110, $82.50).

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, Emperor (18 by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1882-83) by Brahms (1833-97).

Sometimes you feel here is this herd effect in the music world where many artists seem to concentrate on the same few solo pieces.  The piece that seems to be in vogue recently seems to be Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.  A rough scan of this blog returns the event once or twice a year.  That is not necessarily a complaint: I mentioned before that I heard Beethoven’s violin concerto nearly every day one summer and didn’t tire of it.

The last time I heard this was in Sydney, performed by Garrick Ohlsson, conducted by Ashkenazy.  Ohlsson is a big man, Hough is quite small in comparison.  Yet the thing that came across most prominently was both of them dispatched the piece with a serious demeanor, not at all given to flamboyance.  This evening Hough delivered a technically flawless performance, and mostly let the music speak for itself through the way it was structured.  He did vary the tempo at selected places, to mixed effect.

Stephen Hough at curtain call, with Alan Gilbert looking on from the podium.

I noticed that the Concertmaster and the Principal bass were not present for the concerto, perhaps they are observing the usual “tradition” of excusing themselves when a soloist is present?

Despite my having heard it several times before (mostly recently in January, 2015, by the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer), Brahms’s third symphony continued to sound unfamiliar to me.  To prepare for the evening, I watched the first movement on YouTube while going through an abridged score.  This helped me to recognize the F-A flat-F motto, denoting the words “free but happy.”  The other finding was a section of the movement is repeated. \ The recording was made by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti.  One obvious difference was the level of precision in the YouTube video was just so much better than what I heard tonight.  Even with a simplified score, one could see the challenge the music would present to an orchestra, with its runs and syncopated passages. Again the third movement sounded very familiar.

Gilbert conducted with great energy, and with good effect – despite my misgivings.  It occurred to me this would be a more satisfying opening concert for the year than the one we heard last week.  Gilbert also took the occasion to pay tribute to Carl Schiebler, the recently deceased personnel manager or the orchestra.

The line in the New York Times review, “Masterworks you hear all the time,” is an apt description of the program.  The reviewer had only one paragraph devoted to the performance, including this one liner for the symphony: “Mr. Gilbert drew from them a spirited, richly textured account of Brahms’s Third Symphony.”  In contrast, the review in New York Classical Review contains a detailed critique of the evening, and tries to attribute Gilbert’s “micro-conducting” to the visiting musicians in the orchestra.  He thought the horn was too loud, and I thought it sounded uncharacteristically unsteady the entire evening, and was surprised that it was the principal that played.

We drove up and parked on Amsterdam Ave, dinner was at East Szechuan.  The drive back was also straightforward.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano. January 5, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Y105, $54.50).

Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Little Threepenny Music) for Wind Ensemble (1928-29) by Weill (1900-50).
Piano Concerto (2016) by HK Gruber (b. 1943).
Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, D. 125 (1814-15) by Schubert (1797-1828).

Other than for the title, which I have known for a while, I know very little about the Threepenny Opera.  The suite we heard today was a 22-minute piece extracted from the 90-minute opera by the composer Kurt Weill soon after the opera debuted.  The Playbill has quite a bit of background on Weill and the piece, for tonight’s music, what suffices is the summary of the plot provided by David Drew: “The gangster Macheath ‘marries’ Polly Peachum, whose father is boss of London’s beggars; flees Peachum’s wrath; is betrayed by the whore Jenny; escapes; is recaptured, taken to the gallows, and miraculously reprieved.”  The titles of the numbers are close to being self-explanatory: Overture (Maestoso), The Moritat of Mack the Knife (Moderato assai), The Instead-of Song (Moderato), The Ballad of the Easy Life (Fox-Trot molto leggiero), Polly’s Song (Andante con moto), Tango-Ballad, Cannon Song (Charleston Tempo), and Threepenny Finale.

The ensemble probably had quite a few extras in it, as saxophonist, banjoist, and guitarist are not usually in a symphonic orchestra’s roster.  What we thought was an accordion was actually a bandoleon, which were first produced in Germany but became popular in South America.  Knowing what it is doesn’t mean I could pick up its sound from the ensemble, though.  And when did banjo and guitar get classified as wind instruments?

 The Bandoleon.
Wind Ensemble that Performed Weill's Piece.

In any case, it was an interesting composition.  I could follow along with what I read in the Playbill, which was a good thing.  The opera is probably more interesting though.  The music went about as expected, but I could feel some awkwardness as the orchestra tried to morph into a big band, with Gilbert trying to be the band leader.

Heinz Karl Gruber is “one of Austria’s most admired composers,” and was composer/conductor of BBC Philharmonic (Manchester), yet today was my first encounter with him.  The piano concerto was commissioned by New York Phil and others, with Ax as the soloist.  While not written for virtuosity’s sake, it was written for Ax’s hands and musical gifts (in the composer’s words.)  Based on Gruber’s 2014 opera “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” the concerto supposedly has the piano as tip of an iceberg, with the orchestra serving as an echo chamber for the “factual” discourse between the pianist, the harp and the tuned percussion.  It will be all good if I could hear the harp, which didn’t come across at all to my usually acoustically good seat.  The harpist was a man, so definitely wasn’t Nancy Allen.  The percussion came across fine, though.

Ax came on stage with his usually smile and exuberance, music score in hand.  He was all serious when going through the score, and one could see the tremors in the page-turners hands.  Against a full orchestra, the piano sometimes didn’t come through.

I suspect I can eventually get to understand and appreciate the music, but not after one listen.  As with many of these modern compositions, it will be more of an intellectual understanding than an emotional one, at least for me.

Gilbert, Gruber, and Ax after Performance of the Piano Concerto.

The concertmaster had quite a few solo passages, and Huang generally did fine, although a bit weak at times.  Again, a better violin?

When one thinks of child prodigy composers, one usually thinks of Mozart, and that’s probably the right answer.  Lately, however, I have come to appreciate Mendelssohn (have been listening to his violin sonatas) and Schubert, who both died in their 30s.  This concerto was written when Schubert was 18.

I am sure this was my first encounter with the music (too rushed to find out), and it was easy to understand and to like.  Indeed many of the tunes sounded quite familiar.  The Playbill talks about how Schubert imitated the styles of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  I must say I heard a lot of Haydn, some Mozart, but very little Beethoven.  The movements are Largo – Allegro vivace, Andante, Menuetto: Allegro vivace – Trio, and Presto vivace.  The orchestra put in a spirited rendition, and the audience showed their appreciation by applauding at the conclusion of a couple of the movements.

The New YorkTimes review “Concert Hall, Meet Cabaret” is an apt title, refer to it for a blow-by-blow description of the piano concerto.  Little is said about the Weill and Schubert pieces, though.  The reviewer also pointed out the “extras” are from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Our drives in and back were both quite straightforward.  This was our first concert this year, while the concert was fine, I would have preferred a more memorable one (not exactly in what sense, though.)