Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Metropolitan Opera – Beethoven’s Fidelio. March 28, 2017.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat X103, $128.50).

Story.  Leonore disguises herself as Fidelio so she can work in the prison where her husband Florestan is held as a political prisoner by Don Pizarro.  While Don Fernando plans to visit, Pizarro wants the prison warden Rocco to kill Fidelio.  Fernando arrives in time to spare Fidelio of his execution and Pizarro is punished instead.

Conductor – Sebastian Weigle. Lenonore – Adrianne Pieczonka, Florestan – Klaus Florian Vogt, Rocco – Falk Struckmann, Don Pizarro – Greer Grimsley, Don Fernando – Gunther Groissbock, Marzelline – Hanna-Elizbeth Muller, Jaquino – David Portillo.

If the storyline I wrote above is simple, it is because the story is simple.  The only complication is the romantic aside among Marzelline (Rocco’s daughter), Jaquino (her suitor), and Leonore (disguised as Fidelio).  Jetlag hit me tonight, so I lost my concentration every now and then, and I could still follow the plot as it unfolded.

If not the fact this was Beethoven’s only opera, many people (including Anne and I) would ask: who wrote this?  The main shortcoming for me is the simplicity of the story.  One can argue how the characters are built up during the opera, and how the plot falls within the “rescue” genre popular at that time, but there is no escape that the plot is too flimsy to be taken seriously.  The Program Notes talks about how Beethoven was “utterly solipsistic” (not sure that description helps) and wouldn’t be able to compose a Mozart-modeled opera, yet one wonders if the opera would have worked better as a comedy; that, despite my general dislike of comedies.

The sets were first used in 2000, and worked reasonably well.  For Act I it consists of several storeys of prison cells on one side of a courtyard, for Act II a dungeon accessed by a rather high set of ladder rungs.  The climb looks quite daunting, and I can’t image an older or heavier singer coming down from it.  Towards the end of Act II the wall of the dungeon was pushed up by a couple of people (Leonore and Florestan? I am not sure) to reveal a square with a scaffolding.  This can be considered either ingenious, or comical.  I missed how Pizarro ended up on the horse statue with a noose around his neck and a gun at his head; perhaps I dozed off?

The singers did okay.  I was particularly impressed by Muller in the role of Marzelline, in her Met debut.  While her story is tangential, there were substantial lines for the role.  Muller sang with clarity, her strong voice carried well to our part of the auditorium.  Pieczonka as Leonore was very believable as Fidelio.  Vogt, who appeared in Act II, did well as the unjustly imprisoned Florestan. As the suiter Jacquino, Portillo brought the right level of haplessness and comedy to the role.  Grimsley, whom we saw as Wotan several times at the Met and in Seattle, was disappointing: I had to cup my ears if I wanted to hear him clearly.

The “literature” (i.e., Wikipedia and the Program Notes) talks about the many times Beethoven revised the opera, and the four overtures that he composed to go along with it.  Eventually he settled on the fourth one, a bit lighter than others so it would not overwhelm the opening scene.  It may well be true, but I frankly don’t have the ability to make such an observation.  But I know I was somewhat disappointed by the performance, which was on the weak and disorganized side.  There were quite a few ensemble numbers in the opera which I liked, but I suspect they would work equally well for me as ensemble numbers.  The chorus played a limited role, but it was well prepared.

Curtain call.  For some reason I had the B/W mode set for my iPhone.

I saw this “in concert” in 2010, performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic, conducted by Edo de Waart.  I repeat the same last sentence: “As for the opera itself, I am somewhat disappointed.”

As in the writeup in the HK Phil performance, today’s Program Notes did its version of overselling: “At heart, the opera proclaims how a woman and wife, imbued by conviction, courage, and love, can bring down a tyrant.  Those are ideals at the heart of Beethoven’s own convictions, and to them he brought the full force of his own craft and courage.”  If I were writing for the Program Notes, I would stress the uniqueness of this opera in Beethoven’s oeuvre, and how it illustrates the particular strengths and weaknesses of Beethoven as a composer.  That would be enough to attract me to see this opera.  And for that reason I am glad to have seen it.

The New YorkTimes review is very positive on this production, and points out some interesting facts about the production.

We had little trouble driving up to New York.  However, today was a rainy day, and I was quite soaked and felt cold during the first act.  That didn’t help with my concentration.  The drive back was also straightforward.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Xian Zhang, conductor; Lukas Vondracek, piano; Garth Greenup, trumpet. March 25, 2017.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC.  Orchestra (Seat S104, $40).

Symphony No. 1 in D Major (1916-17), “Classical,” Op. 25 by Prokofiev (1891-1953).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 35 (1933) by Shostakovich (1906-1975).
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1811-12) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

The concert was billed as “Zhang Conducts Beethoven 7,” which does not do the program justice.  However, it was the reason that I bought tickets to this event – more on that later.

The good news is today’s concert was quite well attended.  And the program is repeated four times (this is the third performance.)  The better news is the musicians performed superbly, and for that they got well-deserved applause from the audience.

The Prokofiev symphony is on one of the few CDs we have in our Subaru, so we have listened to it multiple times, especially on stretches of highway with no reliable radio reception.  It was called “Classical” as the composer’s intention was to write a symphony “such as Haydn might have composed had he lived in the 20th century.”  I am not sure the statement stands any deep scrutiny, or Prokofiev was a deconstructionist way before his time.  In Haydn’s days, music can be analyzed as melody, rhythm, harmony, tempo, dynamics, and other attributes.  I wonder if Prokofiev did compose this based on variations of Haydn’s style, if there is such a thing.  The short symphony is shorter than 15 minutes, and consists of Allegro con brio, Larghetto, Gavotte: Non troppo allegro, and Finale: Molto vivace.  It was a delightful start for the evening.

Shostakovich’s first piano concerto started life as a trumpet concerto, and is also unusual in that the orchestra is all-string.  While billed as a piano concerto, the trumpet sits up front and carries on a dialog with and commentary on the piano.  Trying to catch how the two solo instruments interact was a fun part of the experience.  It is also relatively short at 22 minutes, with four movements: Allegro moderato; Lento; Moderato and Allegro con brio.  The last three movements seemed to have been played without pause, with the third movement best considered as a transitory passage between the second and fourth movements.  Indeed, looking at the NYP archives, “attacca” is at the end of both the second and fourth movements.  The complete third movement is three pages long.

The Czech pianist Vondracek put in a delightful performance; this was the first time we heard him. I thought the trumpet could sound louder, sometimes you just heard this weak echo in the background.  It should have been more of a conversation.  For whatever reason, two trumpets were used.  (Different ranges and different sounds, most likely.)

Greenup and Vondracek at curtain call.

We bought the tickets to this concert after we heard the performance by New York Philharmonic about a month ago.  I was interested in how NJSO and NYP would compare.  Also one was conducted by Blomstedt (very energetic for an 89-year old), and this by Zhang (very energetic for any age.)  I came away giving an edge to NJSO, to my surprise.  A big factor is how the slow movement was played.  I really like the mix of somberness and sadness reflected in tonight’s place.  Anne thought it was slower than she wanted, yet she also gave the nod to NJSO.  A serious music critic may look at other factors; we only care how the performance appealed to us.

Even in my jetlagged state, I had little problem with staying away during the concert.  Perhaps that is an even better indication of my experience.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Metropolitan Opera – Mozart’s Idomeneo. March 6, 2017.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Y105, $106).

Story.  See prior blog.

Conductor – James Levine.  Ilia – Nadine Sierra, Idamente – Alice Coote, Elettra – Elza van den Heever, Arbace – Gregory Schmidt, Idomeneo – Matthew Polenzani, Voice of Neptune – Eric Owens.

We had seen this opera before in 2006, it was also conducted by James Levine.  The principal singers were all different, there was no reason to expect otherwise.

I looked over the blog, I didn’t say much about the conducting then.  During the intervening years, Levine’s health has seen a lot of ups and downs.  He had a hiatus of a couple of years, and for a while people thought he would not ever return to the conducting stage.  I made a remark earlier that he seemed to be making progress, and tonight was the best I have seen him since his return.  He managed to keep the trembling to a minimum, and provided good cues to the chorus (we couldn’t tell if there was a choral conductor in the prompter’s box, though.)  This was a long opera – four hours with two half-hour breaks – and his energy level remained high throughout.  I am glad he will be doing a few operas for the next season.

My general comments then about the staging (symmetrical) and costume (what the heck) still hold, although I got to appreciate other aspects of the opera this time, which is good.

There was quite a bit of chorus singing, not so much stand-alone tunes, but the ensemble sounded good, providing the right mood for the occasion.

Most of the singers had beautiful voices, and their voices projected well into our orchestra seats.  Schmidt was a stand-in for Alan Opie, who was ill; he did well.  I could follow Coote as Idamente better this time, but still got confused every now and then by the high female voice.

What I found most disappointing was the lack of emotion in the singers’ voices.  The opera began with rather long monologues by Ilia and Idamante.  All the technical elements were there, the voices were clear, but none of the sadness, longing, confusion came through.  You enjoyed the voices, but you didn’t get invested in the welfare of the protagonists.

Notable exceptions were Polenzani as Idomeneo and van den Heever as Elettra.  When I first saw it, I didn’t the lengthy mad scene Elettra had at the end, and I didn’t like it tonight either.  Which brings me to the issue of so many repeats in the music score, and the need to perform as directed.

The iPhone 6 could do only so much with the dim lighting at curtain call.  From left: Noah Baetge as the High Priest, Elza van den Heever as Elettra, Matthew Polenzani as Idomeneo, Nadine Sierra as Ilia, Alice Coote as Idamente, and Gregory Schmidt as Arbace.

That may bring out a lot of groans from Mozart aficionados, and I am sure there are lots of twists and turns in these repeats, all attesting to the genius of Mozart.  The other side of the argument is, if people are okay with a one-hour version of Magic Flute, there is no reason to not do that in this case, either.

To be fair, the four hours went by reasonably quickly, and I stayed awake throughout despite my not having a good night’s sleep the night before (I had to wake up early this morning.)

We sat next to a couple who have been going to the Met for 30-odd years, and chatted a bit about what we liked and disliked about the performance.  They had seen this opera in 2016 also.  We all felt sorry about tonight's poor attendance: may be around 50% full.

The New York Times review was full of praise for Levine.  The reviewer also mentioned that Mozart actually cut down the length of the libretto.

A cold front came through over the weekend, and temperature was back below freezing.  Plus the fact that it was Monday, so traffic was light both ways.  I don’t recall being able to make the NJ to NY trip in less than one hour, today we did it.  Dinner was at East Szechuan.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Leonidas Kavakos, violin; Christina Landshamer, soprano. March 1, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat CC104, $47).

NYx: Fractured Dreams (Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra) (2016) by Auerbach (b. 1973).
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1892 and 1899-1901; rev. 1901-1911) by Mahler (1860-1911).

This concert wasn’t in our original plans.  Because of our travels, we exchanged tickets for a Tchaikovsky Festival concert for this one.  I was a bit ambivalent about it, but decided it could be interesting.  There was this violin concerto commissioned by New York Philharmonic to be premiered by Kavakos, and Mahler is always interesting.

We had heard a composition called Nyx before, composed by Salonen.  For that program Nyx was called a shadowy figure to which can be traced the creation of Day (or heaven and earth in another version.)  Today’s Playbill described Nyx as the goddess of the night.

Lera Auerbach was raised in the Russian Ural Mountains and came to the US in 1991 to study at Julliard and later at Hannover University of Music, Drama, and Media.  She evidently is much more than a composer; she has also published poetry and books.  And tonight’s concerto is her fourth for the violin, for which she also wrote an accompanying poem.

Auerbach came on stage before the performance to talk about her work.  She used different illustrations to characterize the music, but did not add much to the description found in the Playbill.  By changing the word from Nyx to NYx she made this composition about life in New York, or rather broken dreams, that are somehow tied together.

The thirteen dreams (sogni) are labeled Libero, Pesante, Tragico, Nostalgico, Scherzo meccanico, Allegro moderato, Sognando libero, Nostalgico curioso, Allegro furioso, Magico, Tragico, Adagio misterioso, and Allegro furioso.  Since some of these descriptions don’t really translate into tempi, and the movements were played without pause, so it was difficult at times to know where we were.

One really cannot blame Kavakos for having the music in front of him.  In the past I have described his playing as practicing an etude.  Today it was much more natural, most of the time anyway.  There are unconventional techniques such as playing very close to the bow to produce an eerie sound – this music was about dreams, which would include nightmares, after all.  As contemporary music goes, I found this piece on the “easy-to-like” spectrum.  One of the reasons I didn’t pick this concert as part of my subscription was because of this piece, now I don’t mind hearing it again.

Lera Auerbach, flanked by Alan Gilbert and Leonidas Kavakos, after the performance of her fourth violin concerto NYx: Fragmented Dreams.

Since much of the music is atonal, I wonder how many would notice any wrong notes played.  Also, a musical saw was used to produce a sound that is not, but still best described as being like, finger nails on a chalk board.  The pastor of the church I grew up in played this instrument, although he used an actual saw.

When Dicterow was the concertmaster, he would recuse himself (most of the time) from being in the orchestra.  Frank Huang, however, led the orchestra for this premiere.  I assume he would enjoy experiences like this, and egos were such that they didn’t clash.

Mahler’s Fourth is long, at about an hour.  We heard this six years ago, which also had Dicterow playing Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto.  At that concert Staples led the orchestra, which included quite a few solo lines.  Today Huang did that part.

After I posted the blog for the 2011 concert, a reader explained to me a second violin tuned a tone higher is used during some of the solo passages to generate a more brilliant sound.  I guess we could called that a B violin.

The song “Das himmlische Leben” was part of the fourth movement, and it was sung by Christina Landshamer.  She sang in last year’s Messiah, and my comment that her voice was weak applies to tonight’s performance as well.  The lyrics, describing a child’s view of heaven, were quite interesting.  The Program Notes explained what all the saints are.

Frank Huang being acknowledged by Alan Gilbert and Christina Landshamer at the conclusion of Mahler's Fourth Symphony.

Sometime during the performance of the Mahler it occurred to me that Gilbert actually is a great conductor, to so effortlessly bring out the story in the composition and the best in the orchestra.  In some Playbills he is described as someone in the lineage of Toscanini, Mahler, Bernstein, and other prominent New York Philharmonic conductors.  Perhaps he is not quite in that league yet, but I am quite sure he will get there.  This is his last year as the music director, I wonder where he will be next.

The New York Times reviewer also thought Auerbach didn’t connect with the audience, but enjoyed the music and had a rather lengthy description of the piece.  He also had good things to say about the Mahler symphony.

We bought some Chinese takeout and ate on Lincoln Plaza.  Today was a warm day.