Saturday, April 29, 2017
David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. Orchestra (Seat CC105, $62.50).
Funeral Song, Op. 5 (1908) by Stravinsky (1982-1971).
Forest: a concerto for four horns (2016) by Tansy Davies (b. 1973).
Also Sprach Zarathustra, Tone Poem (freely after Friedrich Nietzsche) for Large Orchestra, Op. 30 (1895-96) by Strauss (1864-1949).
The two pieces performed in the first half of the program certainly were interesting on paper.
Stravinsky wrote the funeral song in memory of his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov. It was lost and mostly forgotten after its first performance in 1909. Even Stravinsky couldn’t recall it clearly; at some point he thought it was composed for wind instruments. The manuscript was re-discovered in 2015, and tonight’s performance was a New York premiere.
What he remembered correctly in his 1936 autobiography was that “all the solo instruments of the orchestra filed past the tomb of the master in succession, each laying down its own melody as its wreath ….” From today’s hearing, I would say the instruments all took turn singing the same melody of about three measures in length.
As Stravinsky noted himself (as quoted in the “Angels and Muses” of the Program Notes), at this point his music vocabulary lacked some tools he would later acquire, so the piece did sound quite different from his later works. (Firebird, first of his three iconic compositions, would come a year later.) He was probably also correct in questioning if the marked impression the piece made “was due to the atmosphere of mourning” or “the merits of the composition itself.” The piece certainly would be of great interest for musicologists – I can a few doctoral theses written about it – but didn’t sound particularly interesting for this listener. It might have been more instructional to program it together with one of Stravinsky’s later works so the concertgoer has a shot at hearing how Stravinsky’s vocabulary changed over the years.
Tansy Davies is a young British composer whose career (as described in the Playbill) has some parallel to Lera Auerbach, whose work (NYx) we heard a couple of months ago. Davies’s area of concentration is in composition, as opposed to Auerbach’s wider interest.
When one sees “horn” and “forest” in the same title, one thinks of hunting and woods that are quite popular in music (e.g., Wagner’s Siegfried.) Here are some excerpts from “In the Composer’s Words” that fortify the idea: “celebration of creation,” “mythical instrument,” “sport of hunting,” and “forest imagined in music.” She added “the four horns represent the most human element of the work, … and the orchestra – the forest – that surrounds them.” Being an artist today, it is to be expected that she would throw in “climate change becomes … apparent.”
I tried to listen for that, but failed spectacularly. Instead the one thought that kept permeating in my mind was “what a waste of four competent horn players.” The beautiful sonority of the horn wasn’t used at all, instead we got this rather monotonous (both in pitch and volume) drone from the four instruments. I tried listening for the individual parts, I tried imaging the four horns as four parts of a single instrument, and neither way made sense to me. And in my attempt to understand the horns, I neglected the orchestra completely. As I type this two days later, I don’t recall anything it did.
So this is a piece that completely went over my head, and is a piece that I have no desire to hear again. For the record, the horn players are Richard Watkins, Katy Woolley, Nigel Black, and Michael Thompson. Black is the principal horn of the Philharmonia Orchestra, the others were former principals. I wonder what they think.
Tansy Davies and Esa-Pekka Salonen after the performance of Forest. The four hornist can be seen on the left side of the photo.
Richard Strauss’s Also sprach was straightforward in comparison. I have heard the complete work only once since my blogging days. The introduction (Sunrise) was as dramatic as ever, even after all these years since 2001: A Space Odyssey made it famous. The rest of the music would have made more sense if I had time to study it before the concert – I was a bit busy after our return from Asia Monday. I managed to catch some of the program (e.g., the dirge, and dance song.)
The concertmaster had quite a few solo lines. Tonight Hwang sounded very weak, and was a little flat on some of the high notes. I have had this “he needs a better violin” complaint for a while, but perhaps our seats just had bad acoustics? I didn’t think I had that complaint for most of the evening, though.
On paper this should have been an interesting and/or great concert, I came away thinking it was only “okay.” Not all of that can be attributed to my jet-lagged state, I am quite sure.
The New YorkTimes review can be characterized as a reserved rave. What I would describe as muddled playing the review would characterize as “obscured by the orchestral texture, much in the way moving objects in a forest are perceived in flashes behind branches and foliage.” If nothing else, she is a great word-smith.
We were in Hoboken for the afternoon, it was relatively easy to get into town, with enough time for Chinese takeout which we ate inside the car. The way back was straightforward. Since the concert ended at about 9:15 pm, we were home by 10:30 pm.
Saturday, April 22, 2017
HK Cultural Center Concert Hall. Balcony (Seat H70, HK$380).
swallow harbor (2017) by Tao (b. 1994).
Symphony No. 6 (Tragic) (1904) by Mahler (1860-1911).
This is an ambitious concert. HK Philharmonic evidently has this composer-in-residence program, with Conrad Tao being the current (or recent) incumbent. swallow harbor was to have its world premiere in tonight’s concert. There was no typo: the title is in lower case, and it’s not harbour. The latter probably is due to Tao’s being born and educated in the United States. As to why the title is in lower case, I find no explanation for it.
The even more ambitious undertaking was Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, known among other things for its length (many recordings are 90 minutes, tonight’s performance was 75) and the two sledge-hammer blows in the last movement. It calls for a huge complement of instruments, requiring many extras for its performance.
I must give great credit for van Zweden and HK Phil for pulling this off. Perhaps recognizing these works are not every one’s cup of tea, there was only one performance. The concert hall was more full than usual, but one could still find smatterings of empty seats.
On the other hand, the concert was a bit of a disappointment. What I don’t know is if it was absolute, or was due to my very high expectations of the orchestra. As with most assessments, it was most likely a combination of both factors.
We heard in March a piece composed by Lera Auerbach, titled NYx: Fracture Dreams. It seems tonight’s piece was very much along the same lines, only in this case the city is Hong Kong, and there are no individual vignettes (for lack of a better term.) The composer did provide a description of the music, from its start as a portrait of the city from an outsider’s perspective, to the very end which Tao describes as “at a precarious place orbiting dazzling, grotesque, and true.” As with some recent contemporary pieces I heard, the piece started interestingly enough, but soon deteriorated into what I would characterize as monotony: you get the impression the composer tried to stretch 10 minutes of material into 15 minutes. I am impressed by the number of instruments employed, and that Tao seemed to know how to make full use of each instruments capabilities (e.g., harmonics on the violin.) My remark with Auerbach’s piece was I wouldn't mind listening to it again; for this piece I will have to seriously consider if I want to do it.
Again, the composer is not well-known enough, and the piece is not good enough for such an exotic or cute title. When I first saw “swallow harbor” I thought the composer was referring to a harbor with many swifts flitting about. The Chinese title means “the harbor being consumed.” If Tao meant the latter, then he used poor English. Debussy called his work simply "La Mer" and let the music speak for itself.
Of Mahler’s ten (?) symphonies, the Sixth is the one with the clearest program associated with it. If we go by the Program Notes, that is the case with the first (Allegro energico, ma non troppo) and the last (Finale: Allegro moderato) movements. The description of the middle two movements (Scherzo; Andante moderato) is sparse. Evidently there is some controversy as to what the correct order is for these two movements. In the two New York performances I heard, it was Andante moderato/Scherzo. Today was the reverse. Wonder how van Zweden would do it with the New York Philharmonic: go with his take, or honor tradition. The other subject of discussion among those who “know” is what the three hammer blows signify. In conformance with the “tragic” theme, it is reason to attribute the blows to death of Mahler’s daughter, his forced departure from Vienna, and the diagnosis of a heart disease that eventually proved fatal. The only problem was these events occurred after Mahler finished writing the music.
The first thing one noticed was how large the ensemble was. From memory: 8 horns, 12 cellos, two sets of timpani, 3 cymbals; the percussion and wind sections comprise 46 musicians by my count. This was also the first time I noticed a timpanist doubling as triangle and tam-tam players, and that there were different ways to play a triangle – with the instrument hanging on a stand, or held in the left hand. And pity those musicians sitting in front of some loud instruments, I felt the need to cover my ears sitting in the balcony. They did have some shields behind them, but it still had to be very noisy the way the brass and percussion were going.
The large orchestra after performing Mahler's Sixth Symphony. The "sledgehammer" (a wooden box) can be seen at the left rear part of the photo, behind the timpani sets and the tam-tam. I counted 46 percussion and wind players. Two harps and the celesta were out of view.
Even with a large ensemble of strings, the balance was a bit off among the different sections, with the strings sounding overwhelmed in many instances. This might be due to our being up in the balcony, with the violinists’ backs towards us – the violin solos were weaker than I remembered from past concerts.
HK Philharmonic has been quite aggressive in its repertoire, especially under van Zweden. For example, they are planning to do in-concert performances of the entire Ring Cycle. Mahler’s Sixth is another example. And last time I heard them they had a premiere performed by Yo-Yo Ma. The organization must be congratulated for being able to put this program together; for this concert they had to take on many extras and integrate them into the music-making.
However, as I mentioned earlier, I was disappointed at how they performed. I don’t know enough details about the symphony to say how it didn’t meet my expectations, but I do know if a piece was well performed.
Not too long into the performance it was obvious they could play the notes, but they couldn’t tell the story. Mahler’s music typically takes you on a tour of a vast landscape, unfolding individual vistas along the way. What we got instead was disparate sections that were strung together. Instead of a masterpiece, we got an etude. This shortcoming applies to the Program annotator as well, as mentioned above. Also, the sonata-form repetition described in his write-up didn't happen (as far as I could tell.)
Given its title (although Mahler subsequently dropped it), one is biased towards hearing tragedy in the music. However, I felt the performance would be more appropriately described as comical. It wasn’t helped by how the “sledgehammer” (for tonight a wooden box) was struck. I can understand how it would take deliberate movements to make sure the timing was correct, but it was a bit much when wood chips were flying all over the place with the first hammer blow. And the frequent raising and lowering of woodwinds reminded me of jazz bands.
There were many bright spots, though. Some passages were played very well, and led one to wonder “what could have been” had they been able to maintain the same level of excellence. And there were many impressive section players. Particularly worthy of note was the principal horn, many of the soft horn solos sounded sublime. The other woodwind principals were also impressive. It was interesting to see how hard the bass clarinetist worked.
I do wonder if the less-than-stellar performance was due to the conductor, or the orchestra. There is a CD of van Zweden conducting the Dallas Symphony, but it is unlikely I would buy it. It would be interesting to see if this will be in the NY Phil program the next few years.
Despite all my misgivings, if I have a chance to listen to HK Phil do this again, I would. That may be more due to my wanting them to succeed than I was blown away by this performance.
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Xian Zhang, conductor; Derek Fenstermacher, tuba; Ying Li, piano; Zitong Wang, piano. April 8, 2017.
State Theatre, New Brunswick. Balcony. (Seat G115, $37).
Internet Symphony No. 1, “Eroica” (2008) by Tan Dun (b. 1957).
Tuba Concerto in F Minor (1954) by Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).
The Carnival of the Animals (1886) by Saint-Saens (1835-1921).
Bolero (1928) by Ravel (1875-1937).
The concert was billed as “Ravel’s Bolero” which didn’t do justice to the program. Both the Tan and Vaughan Williams pieces were NJSO premieres, and Saint-Saens piece is equally interesting – and longer – as Ravel’s Bolero. I wonder if more people would have bought tickets with a title that is more descriptive than the one offered.
Tan, best known for the musical score for “Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon,” was commissioned by Google and YouTube for an internet premiere a few years back. I knew about the piece, and had always thought it was a substantial piece of composition. I was surprised that the music lasted only 5 minutes or so (duration given as 6 minutes in the Program, and as 4 by Robert Wagner, the principal bassoon who spoke before the concert.) Even more surprising is the claim that it consisted of four movements; I tried my best and could make a case for three. The other unconventional aspect was the use of tire rims and brakes: their pitches seemed calibrated. The overall effect was quite pleasant, and definitely worth a second listen. I should remark we had heard a piece by Lindberg which also employed various pieces curated from a junkyard; and that was written in the mid-1980s, three decades before Tan did this. Wagner did ask the percussionist to demonstrate the sounds of these “instruments,” which helped. He also asked the horn to demonstrate the “whooping sound” it would make during the performance. These certainly helped clarify things for the audience. Finally, Tan supposedly quoted a lot from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. All I heard was the main theme played by the violins.
On YouTube there is a recording with music score. The score looked complex enough: I counted 28 lines. The music didn’t sound nearly as complex, and one gets the idea that Tan ran out of idea and had to resort to a lot of doubling and repetition. And other than tempo changes, I had a hard time finding the four movements. I must, however, I didn’t mind listening to it a second time. (That it was short helped, no doubt.)
I can name the number of tuba concertos I know: one. And before this concert? Zero. One seldom hears a clear tuba line in any classical orchestral music, the instrument tends to just provide the ump-pa at low frequencies. The instrument turns out to have quite a range (from D1 to F4, per a Wikipedia article. Again, one can find the score on YouTube, and it is incredible that such complex tunes can be played on such a “bulky” (for lack of a better word) instrument. One would think even if the fingers are nimble enough to make the moves, it is not clear that the air in the instrument can respond that quickly. This seems to be confirmed both by the YouTube performance, and the performance by Fenstermacher, NJSO’s principal tuba player. It was a good attempt, and it showcased how beautiful the tuba can sound. This short 10-minute piece is comprised of three movements, which are (i) Prelude: Allegro moderato, (ii) Romanza: Andante sostenuto; and (iii) Finale – Rondo all tedesca: Allegro. There was no confusion about the movements in this piece.
Per Wikipedia, Vaughan Williams wrote this piece for the London Symphony Orchestra’s principal tuba Philip Catelinet. Initially thought of as an eccentric idea, the piece eventually became one of the composer’s more popular pieces. Wagner, in his introduction, said this was the first time the piece was performed by the NJSO. Perhaps “popular” is relative. The Program Notes described how Vaughan Williams treated the instrument in a serious manner, minimizing its jocular side.
Fenstermacher after performing Vaughan Williams's Tuba Concerto.
For encore we heard a movement from a Bach Partita. Despite Fenstermacher’s best efforts, one couldn’t but wonder how Bach would disapprove: there was no way to string different parts together from the disjoint notes.
Saint-Saens wrote The Carnival suite as a lark, over the course of a few days. It got so popular that Saint-Saens withdrew most of the work, worried that it would be considered typical of his compositions. That was unfounded worry, and in any case Saint-Saens allowed the complete work to be published after his death. It was easy to follow the description of the different movements by how the music sounded. They are (i) Introduction and Royal March of the Lion, (ii) Hens and Roosters, (iii) Horses of the Tartary (Fleet Animals), (iv) Tortoises, (v) The Elephant, (vi) Kangaroos, (vii) Aquarium, (viii) People with Long Ears, (ix) The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Forest, (x) Aviary, (xi) Pianists, (xii) Fossils, (xiii) The Swan, and (xiv) Finale. The Program Notes also contains some interesting tidbits about various movements, such as the use of the tune “jingle jingle little star.” Even though the bass was a bit weak (perhaps that’s the range), and “The Swan” was played a tad too fast, the soloists all fared quite well. The two pianists are Curtis students from China. With the pianos facing each other, their hand movements sometimes are quite pleasant to watch.
The two pianists worked well together during the performance of The Carnival of the Animals.
The headline piece rivals The Carnival Suite in popularity. In some sense this is an introduction to the various instruments of the orchestra: the flute, various clarinets, and others. When played well, one is amazed at how Ravel manages to build a simple tune up into a climax. The piece started soft enough: Anne was saying it was so soft that instead we heard the humming of the gentleman sitting in front of us. Unfortunately, despite the (shall I say) frantic urging of Zhang, the volume never built up to a level I expected. I do appreciate how the snare drum kept its beat throughout.
The nj.com review is generally positive. The reviewer also had problems with how Ravel was performed.
Overall this was an enjoyable concert experience. I just realized NJSO doesn’t allow photos during their concerts, which is a bit puzzling as one would think they want as much buzz as possible given the typical attendance at their concerts. Someone at NJSO needs to research how to make use of social media. Their counterpart across the Hudson manages to find a way to make the accommodation.
Sunday, April 09, 2017
Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. Orchestra (Seat U31, $25).
Story. The main characters are the Egyptian Princess Amneris, the Ethiopian Princess Aida who is Amneris’s slave, and the Egyptian warrior Radames. Amneris loves Radames, who is in turn in love with Aida. Radames is chosen to lead the Egyptian army to fight with the invading Ethiopians, led by Aida’s father, King Amonarsro. Radames is victorious and captures many Ethiopians, including Amonarsro. The Egyptian king’s order to execute the prisoners is stayed, but relents after hearing the plea of Radames; only Aida and Amonarsro are kept in Egypt as other prisoners are freed. After considerable pressure from Amonarsro, Aida gets Radames to reveal the route the Egyptians will take so the Ethiopians can defeat them. This conversation is overheard by Amneris; Aida and Amonarsro escape, but Radames is captured. Amneris offers to save Radames if he rejects Aida, which Radames refuses. Radames is condemned to be buried alive by the priests. As the tomb is sealed, he finds Aida already inside.
Conductor – Daniele Rustioni. Ramfis, the high priest – James Morris; Radames – Jorge de Leon; Amneris – Violeta Urmana; Aida – Krassimira Stoyanova; Amonasro – George Gagnidze.
I am quite sure we have seen this opera before, but probably quite a while ago as there is no blog entry for it. Also, we saw the Broadway version of this; that was also a while ago, again there was no blog entry.
The story is quite straightforward. The opera itself is known for both its music and its grandeur, especially the triumphal march at the end of Act II.
The singers sang well, and all had strong voices. I do have a few misgivings about several of them. One uniform complaint is they only had one volume setting: loud (mostly, anyway.) Which is a pity as I am sure their beautiful voices would all come through in the moments that called for tenderness. I appreciate the singing, but miss the emotion and drama. When de Leon first launched into “Celeste Aida,” his pitch seemed a bit off at the end of each of the held notes. That problem seemed to go away as the performance progressed. Stoyanova has a great voice that soared while she needed it to, but again she didn’t have a “soft” setting – her plea to the heavens for help sounded more like cursing at fate. Also, her acting skills were limited to lifting her head to look at the ceiling. While not as strong as the others, Urmana’s singing was solid, and she conveyed well her despair at unrequited love. I didn’t get the complex characterization of Amneris as described in the Program Notes, though: she never flew into the rage that was implied in the write-up. Gagnidze and Morris put in credible performances as Amonasro and the high priest, respectively. Gagnidze was particularly fierce as the Ethiopian king.
The orchestra under the exuberant direction of Rustioni did a great job. The music sounded magnificent when it needed to be, and never overwhelmed the singing. The chorus had a major role, from quiet chants to full-throated numbers, and did well throughout. Per the Program Notes, Verdi made up many of the “period music” for this opera, and it sounded very credible.
Tonight’s set was first used in 1988, and I have vague memories of seeing it. (Frankly, I have it mixed up with the set used in the Broadway show.) After all these years it still looked fresh, and clever. Quick scene changes are accomplished by lifting different props off or onto the stage. Many people rave about the Act II triumphal march. The music is grand; and the procession – bookended by horses and chariots – must be the most elaborate in my experience. For someone who comes the opera for the music, it is a bit of overkill. Incidentally, I ran into a young woman (we have known her since she was a young girl) who has attended a few operas at the Met. She remarked to us she was amazed at how much Met spends on the sets, given the poor financial condition the organization is supposed to be in. So, the “grand” doesn’t appeal very much to this millennial either. There was also this ballet scene that was a bit too long, and I always wonder if the dancing during an opera is as good as one I see at the ABT (on the same stage, actually). Also, I was a bit worried that the handlers couldn’t keep the horses harnessed to the chariot from bolting, they looked very unhappy.
The curtain was raised after the end of Act II. Unfortunately I couldn't get my iPhone to take a picture until the curtain was about to close again.
The reason I have so many misgivings is Aida is one of the operas I thought are perfect, despite my having seen it only once before. That applies to every aspect of it: music, story, acting, and staging. By all objective measures this was a great performance, but somehow fell short of this imaginary standard in my mind.
Buying these rush tickets was a last-minute decision. There were quite a few empty seats, but our attempt to move was thwarted by the usher who claimed there would be late-seating: turned out not be true. Our seats were quite good, in any case.
The New YorkTimes review was of a performance at the beginning of the season, in November, 2016. The cast was completely different: for this season the Met will have 14 performances of Aida this season (7 each in 2016 and 2017).
Wednesday, April 05, 2017
Prudential Hall at NJPAC. Tier 1L (Seat D15, $42.50).
Don Juan (1889) by Richard Strass (1864-1949).
Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-30) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).
The orchestra would perform twice in Carnegie Hall (different Symphony for the two evenings), one of those evening would be broadcast live on WQXR. So it is a rather big deal, but not for folks in New Jersey, as discount tickets were offered on Goldstar, which probably helped to get a respectable audience for the evening.
Strauss’s ego was such that he wrote Ein Heldenleben when he was 34, with himself being the hero described in the tone poem. While Don Juan was a tone poem based on the infamous seeker of pleasure, the Program Notes describes this as the first autobiographical hero in Strauss’s music, serving as a declaration of independence; Strauss was 24 at that time.
The music was pleasant enough, with quite a few dramatic passages that one can associate different events with. I just wish there was a brief description of what Strauss wanted to take the audience through, as he had done with many of his tone poems. He did use three quotations from the drama (by Nikolaus Lenau) to sum up the mood and the narrative of the music. I will repeat the last one: “It was a beautiful storm that urged me on; it has spent its passion, and silence now remains … the fuel is all consumed and the hearth is cold and dark.”
Turns out I had heard this tone poem a couple of times before, performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert. I panned one performance and said good things about the other. Tonight’s performance certainly was in the good category. I wished I had read my earlier reviews as they both referenced number of conquests by Don Juan.
This is a large orchestra, I counted 16 first violins, 10 cellos, and 8 basses. As the staff set up the piano for the Ravel piece, I expected many musicians to leave the stage. It is a piano concerto, for one hand only, after all.
To my surprise, most of the musicians stayed for the concerto. Except for a few softer piano passages, the balance worked. We had heard Aimard play once, a Mozart piano concerto. This was certainly no Mozart. The piece sounded like a virtuoso piece, and all the more amazing because it was done with only the left hand. Our seats in Tier 1 offered a good view, but not a close-up one, of how the fingers flew over the keyboard, but what I saw was impressive enough.
Ravel wrote this concerto for the Austrian pianist Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during World War I. During that same time he wrote his much better known Piano Concerto in G Major. The two concertos certainly sounded very different. The piece is nominally marked Lento – Allegro, but it sounded a lot more complicated than that.
Aimard and Gergiev after performance of Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.
Aimard played a rather simple piece as the encore.
I am sure I either studied the Eroica in music theory class, or performed it with the Cornell Orchestra, as I was quite familiar with most of the music. It was somewhat surprising that the familiarity ended with the third movement, and that the last movement sounded new to me. One possible reason is the symphony is so long that I would fall asleep by the time the fourth movement came along. I also commented that the fourth movement didn't sound familiar when I heard it a few years back.
The four movements of the Symphony are Allegro con brio; Marci funebre: Adagio assai; Scherzo: Allegro vivace; and Finale: Allegro molto. They added up to close to an hour! I thought the only long symphony Beethoven wrote was the ninth.
The orchestra certainly maintained the energy throughout the performance; better than I could concentrate, anyway. I had seen Gergiev a few times, mostly as opera conductors. Today his movements were not as exaggerated as I remembered them, yet the orchestra responded very well. The orchestra was founded in 1893, and Gergiev has been the Music Director since 2015-16.
I found this review of a Carnegie Hall performance. It was a different first half (e.g., Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G was performed). The title “Chaos theory: Gergiev, Munich Philharmonic unsettled yet inspired at Carnegie Hall” may sound ambivalent, but the review is all positive.
Our tickets actually cost $53 each as there is a $10.5 charge per ticket. And for today parking was $20, higher than the usual $16 we have been paying. I was glad to be able to attend the event, though.