Tuesday, February 28, 2017

London Philharmonic Orchestra – Vladimir Jurowski, conductor; Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin. February 27, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Y104, $58).

Summer Night in Madrid (Spanish Overture No. 2) (1848-51) by Glinka (1804-1857).
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor (1935) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).
Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1895) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

I have always enjoyed Prokofiev’s second violin concerto ever since I was made aware of it by my violin teacher some 50 years ago.  We heard Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto last Saturday; among other things, it is known as the piece the composer wrote after a disastrous performance of the first symphony, the piece on tonight’s program.  Glinka is considered the first significant Russian composer, having received most of his music training in Italy and Germany, since there was yet no Russian conservatories.  All the ingredients to a great program.  And the conductor is Russian.

High expectations sometimes lead to disappointments.  By many objective standards tonight’s performance was great, but it was not quite up to the standard I expected.

The biggest disappointment is with the Prokofiev concerto.  The first notes were played by the violin, unaccompanied.  In her desire to made it sound simple, she played them without using vibrato.  A great violinist will be able to get the pitches right, others will use vibrato to hide the intonation problems.  Alas, the soloist thought she belonged in the “great” category.  While the intonation problems by-and-large went away, the bad impression stuck with me.  The other disappointment is in the weak sound of the solo violin.  We had heard Kopatchinskaja a couple of years ago, performing in the Mostly Mozart Festival, and I had a similar complaint.  A slight surprise was she had the score in front of her, which she referred to quite often.  It didn’t seem to get into her playing, though.

The other harsh remark I wanted to make about Kopatchinskaja is that she isn’t great good enough to pull off the eccentricity she wants to pull off.  The first thing you noticed was she didn’t wear any shoes.  From our seats in Row Y she seemed to be wearing a tuxedo.  On closer look with the help of binoculars, the pants were ill fitting, and the jacket showed the seams of a preliminary fit, with several cuts on the back.  All that brought to mind another eccentrically dressed violinist: Nigel Kennedy. When I saw Nigel Kennedy in Australia a few years back, I admired him for sharing the encore stage with other performers.  Tonight, Kopatchinskaja shared the second encore with the concertmaster.  The first encore was a modern piece (to the best of my knowledge, something she wrote) that incorporated a lot of vocal on her part.

Kopatchinskaja with the Concertmaster after the second encore.

In preparation for the concert I looked at the score.  Turned out I thought it was Concerto No. 1, so it was for naught.  However, it was interesting that Prokofiev purposefully made Concerto No. 2 simpler; it sounded complicated enough, but was indeed easier to follow than the first.  Unfortunately for tonight the following was mostly done with the left brain rather than the right – the soloist managed to drain the emotion out of it.

My reservation that my complaint about the acoustics of the seat was dispelled by the Rachmaninoff symphony.  Here I had another issue: it was too loud, way too loud.  Whom I really felt bad for were the musicians sitting on stage, especially the ones in front of the percussion and brass sections.  I hope they all wore ear protection.  Nonetheless, it was impressive the sound a full orchestra could make (a smaller ensemble was used for the first half.)

While I knew that the horrible reviews for this symphony drove Rachmaninoff into despair, I didn’t know that it was conducted by (a probably drunk) Glazunov, and that it was not performed again in Rachmaninoff’s lifetime  The score was discovered two years after the composer’s death.

There is no reason to disparage the symphony – Cesar Cui referenced “a conservatory in Hell” – but it remained a bit inscrutable to me.  The first three movements were easy enough to follow, but when it got to the fourth movement, I began to lose concentration, perhaps it was a bit too long by then.  The audience loved it, though, jumping up to give Jurowski a standing ovation at the conclusion.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra after performing the Rachmaninoff Symphony.  It is a large organization.

The program began with a Spanish-themed piece by Glinka.  The short 10-minute piece contains quite a few episodes.  I thought I would know at least some of the tunes – I didn’t.  It was enjoyable, and demonstrated the great sound and precision of the orchestra.

This was the first time we saw Vladimir Jurowski in person.  He conducted with energy and precision, sometimes with exaggerated movement.  We had seen his brother Dmitri in Hong Kong a couple of years back.

The concert began at 8 pm, a bit late for a weekday concert.  Traffic was okay both ways, and we had a simple dinner at Francesco Pizza before the event.

Monday, February 27, 2017

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Xian Zhang, conductor; Kirill Gerstein, piano. February 25, 2017.

Count Basie Theater, Red Bank, NJ.  Balcony (Seat E109, $38).

Nabucco Overture (1840-42) by Verdi (1813-1901).
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 (1900-01) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).
Variations on an Original Theme, “Enigma,” Op. 36 (1898-99) by Elgar (1857-1934).

Let me state at the beginning that I found this concert enjoyable, exceeding my expectations.  It also must be said that given the popularity of the first two pieces, my expectations were quite high.

Nabucco Overture was a great way to open the concert.  It is a popular piece, with several well-known tunes, and is rather straightforward to perform.  Overall the orchestra played well.  My only issue would be the famous Hebrew Chorus tune was a bit too rigid for my taste – and that is a matter of interpretation.

The Program Notes talks about how the Rachmaninoff concerto begins with a chord in F minor, followed by a low F note.  In each of the eight repetitions there is a slight variation, and the volume increases for each measure.  I was wondering whether the eight degrees of loudness would be noticeable, and Gerstein managed to start with (what I would call) an mp and got to a very loud fff by the time he was done.

The piano sounded quite loud throughout the performance, which was surprising as we usually sit in the same seats for this series.  That was about the only complaint about the performance, as both Gerstein and the NJSO put in a beautiful performance of this piece.

I took some time to read over the score, and had a few observations.  First, the piano part looked much simpler than it sounded.  There are many arpeggio lines played one note at a time, and they sure sounded complicated.  The challenge is more how free the tempo is, and the consequent difficulty to keep the soloist and the orchestra in sync.  That Zhang managed very well.  If I were a member of the orchestra, I would certainly appreciate how she often counted out the beats clearly.  The concerto often has the orchestra doing the melody with the piano providing the obbligato line, and the orchestra sounded great.

Conclusion of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto.  It is difficult to not notice the difference in stature between Gerstein and Zhang; both were standing.

After the intermission, Zhang spoke to the audience a bit about the Elgar piece, supplementing what is in the Program Notes.  She drew attention to Variation XI (G.R.S.) as a dog falling into the water and then got rescued, and Variation XIII (***) which she joked was labelled as such because no one wanted to be called No. 13.  She then described this describes Elgar’s first love who sailed off to New Zealand.  The timpani for this variation was played “snare drum” style with the stick.  In asking the timpanist (whom she referred to as David) to demonstrate the sound she also cleared up one puzzle.  I have always wondered why the roster lists the timpanist as vacant while the same person has been doing it for several years.  David Fein is actually the principal percussionist of the orchestra.

The Program Notes says IX (Nimrod) recalls Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata’s slow movement, which I could detect.  Zhang added that XIII has elements of Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.”  I wish I knew what that theme sounded like.

I was sure I had heard this before, but found no record of it in this blog, so I am either mistaken, or it was before my blogging days.  For completeness, the variations are: I “C.A.E.” (L’istesso tempo); II “H.D.S.-P.” (Allegro); III “R.B.T.” (Allegretto); IV “W.M.B.” (Allegro di molto); V “R.P.A.” (Moderato); VI “Ysobel” (Andantino); VII “Troyte” (Presto); VIII “W.N.” (Allegretto); IX “Nimrod” (Moderato); X “Dorabella” – Intermezzo (Allegretto); XI “G.R.S.” (Allegro di molto); XII “B.G.N.” (Andante); XIII “***” – Romanza (Moderato); and XIV “E.D.U.” – Finale.  Actually, since most of the characters are unknown to most audiences, deciphering them may not be all that critical.  I was happy that I could tell them apart, at least for the most part.

Tonight’s program was part of the Red Bank series.  Attendance was okay, again with many empty seats in the balcony.  Again we ran into the Ferngs, which we also did recently at NJPAC.

New York Philharmonic – Herbert Blomstedt, conductor. February 24, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat BB105, $70.)

Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1811-12) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811-12).

We had been traveling quite a bit the first two months of this year, so I was glad to be back somewhat in our routine, familiar music in a familiar venue, even though we just flew back from Charlotte the night before.

In going over my blog, I found out there was only one other occasion when I heard the two symphonies in the same concert, and that was in Sydney, about a year ago.  (The first symphony was also in the SSO program.)

How one perceives what he hears probably has a lot to do with his state of mind.  While the Program Notes stress the “correctness” of not grouping Beethoven’s symphonies into odd- and even-numbered ones, the concert today drove home how different they could be.  No. 8 was not an easy or calm piece by any stretch of the imagination, but No. 7 was even more dramatic.

The horns got quite a bit of work out, and by-and-large did fine.  However, there were passages where I wished they played with more conviction and/or precision.  And they were at times a bit too loud.

For someone who will turn 90 later this year, Blomstedt certainly didn’t act his age.  He stood erect, conducted both pieces without the music, and was quite interactive with the orchestra.  For the last point he seemed to have mellowed a bit compared to what I recorded five years ago: I said he provided “detailed instructions” to the orchestra.

I got to be familiar with the slow movement of No. 7 from watching Immortal Beloved (I suspect many share the same experience.)  Most (if not all) live performances haven’t lived up to my notion of how that movement should be played.  Today’s met those expectations: right tempo, right degree of somberness, and right volume.

Curtain Call

One interesting fact from the Playbill.  I had been wondering why it took so long for Beethoven’s symphonies to be premiered in New York.  7 and 8 were premiered by New York Philharmonic in 1843 and 1844 respectively.  One reason given was the orchestras in the US weren’t quite ready: in the 1820s there was at one point only one bassoon player in all of New York City.  Nowadays there must be hundreds who audition one slot in the orchestra.

This New York Classical Review article wasn't all that positive as to the New York Phil phrases like "in-the-ballpark" and "in between" are slaps in the face to the orchestra.

Given the weekday train schedules, it made more sense for us to drive in.  We did get some street food before we headed home.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Opera Australia – Szymanowski’s King Roger. February 2, 2017.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House.  Circle (Seat L19, $79.)

Story.  The scenario of the opera is based on Euripides’ The Bacchae about Roger II, a 12th century Sicilian king.  The self-proclaimed shepherd comes into town to preach a new, strange faith based on letting go of inhibitions and embracing pleasure.  While the Archbishop and Deaconess demand the Shepherd be executed, the king hesitates.  The Shepherd succeeds in drawing the crowd and Roger’s wife Roxana to follow after him.  Roger follows.  The Shepherd takes over power and Roger becomes the one on trial.  The Shepherd reveals himself as the god of pure pleasure, and his followers ignite a book-burning bonfire.  Roger succeeds in resisting the Shepherd, and the opera ends with a bright light signaling the dawn of a new day.

Conductor – Andrea Molino; King Roger of Sicily – Michael Honeyman, Roxana – Lorina Gore, Edrisi (Roger’s advisor) – James Egglestone, Shepherd – Saimir Pirgu.

The only encounters I had with Szymanowski was his concerto, which I heard twice, with one of those times by Glenn Dicterow.  I remember scratching my head after each performance.  I wondered what today’s experience would be like.

The first thing one notices about the opera is its brevity.  The entire evening lasts 1:50, with a 30 minute intermission.  One wonders if a 1:20 hour long opera really needs an intermission.  I guess if you are charging over A$300 for some seats, you may want to make the opera a bit more substantial; and you get to sell some refreshments during “the interval.”

Each of the three acts has its set, but with the same backdrop of a curved wall with windows.  For the first act the center is dominated by a huge head whose expression changes as different images are projected onto it.  The head is turned around to expose three levels where some of the action takes place.  At the bottom you have these make dancers that probably represent pleasure.  For the third act there is a bonfire in the middle, the intensity of the flame gets to be quite high during the peak of the book burning session.

In reading up about the opera on Opera Australia’s website and the small handout, this opera is supposed to reflect the battle Szymanowski finds within himself, which may be particularly poignant as he was a gay man in the early 1900s.  The handout describes how difficult it is to represent “inner conflict” on stage.

Overall I must say I have a very limited appreciation of the opera.  The music was best described as dialog with some variation in pitch here or there.  I actually tried listening to the orchestra to see if I got more out of it, and I didn’t.  I did appreciate how precise it was though.  As far as the drama goes, I couldn’t resonate with whatever Roger may be struggling with, or how difficult it was to resist temptation.  The staging is interesting, but I can’t tell you how it relates to the story, or even how it denotes inner conflict.

If I must say something good about the experience, the first (and serious) one would be it is short.  Actually the singers were all strong, and amazing in how they can memorize the language (I am sure none of them was a native Polish speaker) or the tunes, such as they were.  While they could be way off and I wouldn’t be able to tell, they were in pitch the times their notes met the orchestra’s.  The name Pirgu sounded familiar, and a search of this blog returns the time he sang Alfredo to Damrau’s Violetta in La Traviata (where Domingo was Germont.)

Syzmanowski didn’t call this work an opera, calling it a “Sicilian Drama” instead.  He also had a more “conservative” ending because the First World War taught him there had to be limits.

 Curtain Call.  In front are Deaconess, Edrisi, The Shepherd, Maestro Molino, King Roger, Queen Roxana, and the Archbishop.

The applause was more enthusiastic than last night.  Tim attributed that to only real aficionados would go to an opera like this, I am less sanguine about the motivation.

There were quite a few empty seats in the Circle, we moved up a couple of rows before the performance started.  The price was again discounted by 20%.  When Tim bought the tickets, the agent told him this was a “once a lifetime experience.”  To which I would add “… not to be repeated.”  All complaints aside, Opera Australia should be admired for its courage in bringing out rarely performed operas.

The review by Lime Light Magazine is glowing.  Together with what it wrote about last night’s opera, I wonder if there is a mean bone in the reviewer, or if he is employed by Opera Australia.

Tim drove to the Opera House, so it was an easy in-and-out.  And I am wrapping this review up around 11:30 pm the same evening.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Opera Australia – Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. February 1, 2017.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House.  Stalls (Seat P38, A$79.)

Story.  See prior posts.

Conductor – Andrea Licata.  Cavalleria Rusticana: Turiddu – Diego Torre, Santuzza – Dragana Radakovic, Alfio – Jose Carbo, Mamma Lucia – Dominica Matthews, Lola – Sian Pendry.  Pagliacci: Canio – Diego Torre, Nedda – Anna Princeva, Tonio – Jose Carbo, Silvio – Samuel Dundas, Beppe – John Longmuir.

We are in our annual trek to Australia to visit family.  For this year of the rooster the new year falls in late January, before the start of the Sydney Symphony season.  In addition to tonight’s performance, we will be seeing King Roger tomorrow evening.

 This is the Year of the Rooster in the Chinese calendar.

A remark about our seat.  We got this discount coupon for 20% off tickets originally priced at A$99, which we are quite happy with.  During the day I got two emails saying that due to the need for that part of the theatre for filming the performance, our seats had been changed to P38 and 39; they were originally in row W.  This is quite an upgrade, full-priced tickets for our new seats were at A$260 each.  No complaints on our part, naturally.

I liked the performances.  The thing that stood out for both was how “verismo” the productions were.  We have seen this combination two or three times before, and tonight’s were the most hard-hitting.  Everyone wore their emotion on their sleeves, and you go for what you want.  The two Met productions in recent memory had better sets, and probably better singers (Marcelo Alvarez was singing the lead roles in one production, after all), but the sharp edges were smoothed out quite a bit in comparison.  Our being close to the stage, in a relatively small theatre, made the singers sound great, and the action up close and (more) personal.

The orchestra in general did a good job, the two intermezzos were beautifully played.  However, sometimes the solo passages would sound much weaker than I would like.  Crowds play a major role in both operas, and the chorus did a good job.  There were some comedic moments thrown in for good measure, such as the one where a nun grabs a gentleman.

The stories are both set in the 1980s, and the opera worked either because of it or in spite of in; I attribute it to the great singing in any case.  The sets were on the simple side, the rotating platform made scenery changes quite effortless.

Torre as Turiddu and Canio, and Carbo as Alfio and Tonio were both standouts.  Radakovich and Princeva did a splendid job as Santuzza and Nedda respectively.  With all the actions on stage, I was worried that a mishap could happen.  Credit must be given to the choreographer who managed to get everything under control.

It is also quite interesting how the stories can be made to look so different from one production to another.  In the case of Cavalleria, it began with Turiddu lying dead on the ground and then carried away by the crowd, followed by a rather long period of little “action.”  Of course the opera ended when it began, with Turiddu killed.  The other performances I saw had the killing done off stage.  In the case of Pagliacci, the play-within-the-play started normal enough, but morphed into a dream-like episode where Canio was further tormented by his jealousy.  For a short while they had a double for Nedda, which was quite clever.

There was also a conscious attempt to link the two operas together, which wasn’t really necessary.  During Cavalleria some people were putting up posters for the Pagliacci show; and during the intermezzo of Pagliacci we see Santuzza and Mamma Lucia reconciling with one another.  That gave the two ladies an excuse to join in the final curtain call, which left Pendry (as Lola) in the cold.

 From left: Alfio, Turiddu, Mamma Lucia, Lola, and Santuzza at the Cavalleria Rusticana curtain call.

 Curtain Call after Pagliacci.  From the left: Silvio, Mamma Lucia, Nedda, Santuzza, Licata (conductor), Canio, Tonio, and Beppe.  Lucia and Santuzza were from the earlier opera.

This review of the first performance is quite insightful.  I wonder if the reviewer saw the performance once, or did quite a bit of background research.  He did point out Nedda and Silvio appeared in Cavalleria with Silvio as a baker; that showed some level of familiarity with the artists.

The main orchestra seats (stalls) were quite full, which was encouraging.  I am glad we got a chance to see this.  We are staying in Darlinghurst for this trip, which made getting to the Opera House a simple trip via Sydney Trains.