Thursday, May 25, 2017

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Leonidas Kavakos, violin. May 20, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat Y107, $83.25).

Quintet for Piano and Strings in A major, D.667, Trout (1819) by Schubert (1797-1828).
Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77 (1878-79) by Brahms (1833-97).

Quintet musicians.  Shery Staples – violin, Cynthia Phelps – viola, Carter Brey – cello, Timothy Cobb – bass, Shai Wosner – piano.

Anne was away with a church group visiting Central Asia, and I just got back from a Boston trip Friday night.  This did allow me the opportunity to go see this concert, with a program of two pieces that are easy to like.

One of my favorite CDs is a recording of “The Trout” made by Emanuel Ax, Pamela Frank, Rebecca Young, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer.  Today’s ensemble consisted of string players from the Philharmonic, and the guest artist Wosner, and they put in a delightful performance.  Looking back at my reaction to the last time I heard this life (again with Philharmonic players), this is not necessarily a given.

The five musicians (Wosner second from left) after performing Schubert's Trout Quintet.

The Brahms violin concerto, while traditional in structure, makes great technical demands of the performer, and spends a lot of times in the highest notes possible on a violin;  all this Kavakos met with aplomb.  It was overall quite an enjoyable experience, and the orchestra was a great counterpart to the solo. The second movement’s main melody was carried by the oboe, and Wang did an excellent rendition of it.  I will never understand why it was rejected by Sarasate and Hellmesberger. The latter’s famous/notorious remark that the composition was “a concerto not for, but against the orchestra” was partly to blame for Brahms destroying his second violin concerto.

I was a bit disappointed at the subdued degree of romanticism in the performance.  This seems to be a general complaint I have of Kavakos’s playing.

All the Philharmonic musicians, except Staples, performed in the Brahms concerto.  To my surprise, Huang showed up as the concertmaster for the piece.

Kavakos performed Brahms's violin concerto.

The other thing of note was I used the barcode on my cell phone for admission into the concert hall.  New York Philharmonic is the innovator in this regard.

Nowadays a barcode on your cell phone will get you admitted into a New York Philharmonic Concert.

We drove up to Boston last night (today is May 25), and listened to the concerto performed by Heifetz, and was he playing it at a high speed.

The last few concerts were also marked by the huge amount of coughing by the audience between movements.  It was so embarrassing that someone decided to cover it up with applause.  Also, the 65th Ave subway station was under repair, so I had to take the 5:07 pm train. I still got back to NJ in time to pick Anne up at Cheesequake, and we had dinner at the service plaza.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Metropolitan Opera – Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. May 13, 2017.

Cinemark Theaters, Hazlet, NJ.  Theater 11 (Seat C9, $28.22).

Story.  See previous post.  The only thing I would add is Act 1 is devoted to describing the love affair between Octavian and the Marschallin, and the conflict the latter feels as she realizes she is aging and must let Octavian go.

Conductor – Sebastian Weigle.  Octavian – Elina Garanca, The Marschallin – Renee Fleming, Baron Ochs - Gunther Groissbock, An Italian Singer – Matthew Polenzani, Herr von Faninal – Markus Bruck,  Sophie – Erin Morley.

This series of performances was to be Fleming’s last in her role of the Marschallin, and all of the performances were sold out, which is to be expected.  I didn’t want to pay a ton of money for one of the last remaining seats, so buying a Met: Live in HD ticket seemed to make good sense.  Anne was away with a church group, so I went to this screening by myself.

Inside Cinemark Theater 11 in Hazlet, NJ.

We saw this in December, 2013, and I called it “too much of a good thing.”  It was a double-header Strauss day for us, as we also had an afternoon concert with Ein Heldenleben in the program.  Today’s experience was much more enjoyable.

This is a new set, with all scenery based on this corner of a room.  The other set began its service in 1969, so it was time for a replacement.  I don’t remember much of the old set, but my blog seemed to indicate it worked reasonably well.  I am not sure this set has that many new aspects to truly amaze, the only “razzle-dazzle” was when the pictures turned into moving figures.  The old set depicted an opulent Vienna, the new setting is around 1911 (when the opera was written) so there is a heavy military theme to the costumes.  All good, and I suppose the large expenditure must be in part driven to make this a splash farewell for Fleming.  Of course, the last time I saw this the opera had a 30-minute delay because they had trouble with the set.

The music was much more accessible to me this time around.  I could appreciate how the orchestra worked with the singers in one integrated production.  A vocal technician may appreciate how the different singers performed, I just hoped they tuned the mikes to pick up more of the vocal lines.  I have appreciated Fleming more in other roles she played.  One bright spot was Erin Morley, she depicted well Sophie as a defiant girl who wanted to find her own way.  I had seen her a few times before, including as Sophie, and she didn’t sound as good or convincing in those instances.  The role of Ochs required quite a range (low C to G#), I didn’t catch all the instances when those notes were sung, but the couple of times I caught a low note (E perhaps) they sounded very weak.

I complained that I found the Act 3 three-women trio very confusing in the 2013 performance.  I am happy report it was much clearer this time.  I still have to learn to appreciate how it is “a gorgeous blend of female voices that is among the supreme accomplishments of lyric theater.”

Polenzani had a cameo role as an Italian singer who serenaded the Marschallin for a few minutes.  His voice clearly stood out.  He was also the host during the intermissions.  I caught a few minutes of his interviews with the cast, and that’s where I learned about Ochs’s range and Morley doing a more dependent Sophie.

The theater has these comfortable reclining chairs with full-length footrests.  My seat was in the third row, so it was very close to the screen.  Two problems.  One is that I had to tilt my head back even with the seat reclined.  The bigger problem is there is too much detail in the close up shots.  A diplomatic comment would be “I could see the stitching in the costumes.”  A less diplomatic one would be an even bigger suspension of belief is needed if the Marschallin is to be thought of as 32 years old.

The New York Times review is one of the longest I have seen, and other than a small pan here of there, is effusive.  There is also an article on Fleming's final curtain call.  Other reviews are equally enthusiastic.

Most operas I have seen were live performances, and they do feel different.  A clear example was people just walked out after the screening, there was no way to show appreciation to the singers.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

New Jersey Symphony – Xian Zhang, conductor; Jennifer Koh, violin. May 11, 2017.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC.  Tier 2 (Seat C123, $38).

Overture to Cosi fan tutte, K. 588 (1789-1790) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1902-1904, rev. 1905) by Sibelius (1865-1957).
Symphony No. 9 in C Major, “The Great,” D. 944 (1825-26) by Schubert (1797-1828).

We originally had tickets to this concert as part of the Red Bank series, but changed the date as Anne will be away, leaving Friday.

We ended up sitting in Tier 2.  Despite the house’s claim that the acoustics in Prudential Hall is great, I found it rather muted.  The artists seemed to be playing at a far greater distance than they appeared.

The Mozart overture worked out well enough.  It had the lightness and crispness that I like to hear in a Mozart composition, especially for a comedy like this opera.  While this was the earliest of the three works on the program tonight, this overture was the last one to find itself in the NJSO repertoire.  (Probably nothing more significant than an interesting fact.)

I was quite looking forward to the violin concerto, which is one of my favorites (but then I have many favorite violin concertos).  And this would be the first time I got to hear Jennifer Koh.

Perhaps it is the acoustics problem mentioned before, I found the performance not to be particularly exhilarating.  Her technique was superb, and there seemed to be no technical challenge that she didn’t overcome with ease, an example is how she breezed through the cadenza in the first movement.  Her intonation had to be as good as any violinist I have heard in a live performance, which is not easy for the rapid pitch and position changes this piece requires.  However, I often had to strain to pick out the solo violin from the orchestra, which given my familiarity with the piece shouldn’t be necessary.

And it’s not because she wasn’t into it.  A couple of bow hairs broke during the first movement, and she tried to yank them loose after the movement, nearly dropping the bow.  The other was how much her head shook during the performance; it was constant, and made me wonder how she managed to keep the violin pinned under her chin.  In searching the web about what violin she uses, I could only find reference to a Strad which had been on loan to her for 13 years was returned to the foundation, and how she misses it.  Her current violin sounded great, when I could hear it.

The Program Notes describes the orchestra as having a “rather subordinate” role.  I suspect many in the orchestra would disagree, as do I.  It played a near-equal, if not equal, part in the concerto as far as I can tell.  (By the way, this view is shared by the Wikipedia writeup on the concerto.) The Notes also fails to mention the wistfulness in the music of the composer’s not being able to excel as a violin virtuoso; that perhaps is a subjective judgment.

All misgivings aside, it was a beautiful performance of a great violin concerto.  I just wished I had a better seat, or that my ears were not still clogged up from my recent travels.

Xian Zhang looking on as Jennifer Koh takes her bow after performing Sibelius's Violin Concerto.

Schubert’s “Great” Symphony lives up to a name, lasting a good 50 or so minutes.  The four movements are (i) Andante – Allegro, ma non troppo; (ii) Andante con moto; (iii) Scherzo: Allegro vivace; and (iv) Finale: Allegro vivace.

I have heard this symphony on a couple of occasions, and am familiar with many of the melodies.  With Schubert one could usually expect interesting and subtle key changes.  All that we got today.

What I didn’t expect was to feel bored by the performance.  That may be too strong a sentiment, and I was in no danger of falling asleep.  But I kept wondering: how many times can he repeat this particular melody?  Many times.  Fortunately the theme usually changed when I began mumbling “this is too many repeats.”  Looking back over my notes for prior performances, I didn’t feel this way at all.  And I couldn’t really find fault with how the orchestra played, they were precise, the sound was good, and they responded to the conductor well.  I listened to parts of the symphony on YouTube afterwards, with the music score, and didn’t feel the same monotony I felt at the live concert.  What gives?

Zhang conducted with the usual gusto.  Worked quite well for the Sibelius and the Schubert.  I do wonder if that was necessary in the case of Mozart: I would think the conductor role here is to rein in the orchestra to ensure a light and crisp performance.

I toyed with the idea of going to tonight’s Red Bank performance, but decided against it as I needed to get ready to leave town tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor. May 4, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat GG108, $52).

A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 (1947) by Schoenberg (1874-1951).
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1822-24) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Gabriel Ebert, narrator; Camilla Tilling, soprano; Daniela Mack, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Kaiser, tenor; Eric Owens, bass-baritone
Westminster Symphony Choir, Joe Miller, director.

This was an intensive program.  Having Beethoven’s Ninth would make any concert a challenge for the musicians as well as the audience.  For tonight the program also included a 9-minute piece by Schoenberg, which added quite a bit to an already weighty program.

Due to the traffic problems on the West Side caused by President Trump’s visit, the concert was delayed by about fifteen minutes as the orchestra was short a few people.  When Gilbert came to announce the delay, he joked that the audience was here to hear the Schoenberg, which elicited a good laugh from many.

Indeed I cannot imagine ever wanting to go to a concert because Schoenberg is on the program, but I must say this piece is very powerful.  Of course any work on the holocaust would be powerful: be that a painting, a play, or a museum.  There is no perfect way to describe this work, I would characterize this as a narration accompanied by music.  I looked at the score before the concert, and realized quite a bit of coordination is needed between the narrator and the orchestra, much as a soloist needs to be in sync with the ensemble. The narrator Ebert was clear, and brought out the anguish and horror in the text.

The conclusion of the piece has the men’s chorus sing a prayer to the God of Israel.  I wondered where the men were as they were not seated on stage when the concert began.  Turns out they marched down the two center aisles as the narration was about to end, to great effect.  The lights went out at the end, and the audience showed their appreciation for the work.

When the lights came back on, the orchestra continued with Beethoven’s Ninth right away.

Most people associate Beethoven’s ninth with “Ode to Joy,” and indeed the fourth movement is one of the defining attributes of this symphony.  I sometimes wish the Program annotators would talk a little bit more about the other three movements.  As an illustration, and not as criticism, in today’s Playbill the annotator is musing about how Beethoven’s music would have evolved had he continued to write symphonies after this one.  Interesting question, but no help in my understanding of this particular work.

One can always depend on the New York Philharmonic to put out an excellent performance of this monumental work.  Tonight was no except, the orchestra was precise, spirited, and told a great story.

The Westminster Symphony Choir is Anne’s favorite, and I like it well enough.  For tonight there might be as many as 200 singers, quite a force.  I thought they could have done better, as there were quite a few precision problems throughout.  The soloists all stood out, even with a large orchestra and chorus as their counterparts.  Tilling did much better than how I remember she did the times I heard her in the past.  Owens had an iPad for his music, a little incongruent with his three counterparts.

Gilbert acknowledging various orchestra members after performance of the Symphony.  The soloists are (from left) Tilling, Mack, Kaiser, and Owens.

So, when Gilbert joked that people came for the Schoenberg, he had no idea there was more after-the-fact truth to it, at least for this listener.  It probably won’t work for practical reasons, but I would consider switching the order of performance; that would sure send the audience away in a deep funk.

The New YorkTimes review is very positive.  The reviewer characterized the Choir’s singing as sounding “youthful and robust,” and the vocal soloists a “strong quartet.”  Fair enough.

We drove up early enough to avoid the road closures on the Westside Highway – actually all the warnings about traffic gridlock probably helped.  The concert ended at around 9:15 pm, so Anne and I had dessert at Europan before going home.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Metropolitan Opera – Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. May 2, 2017.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat O32, $25).

Story.  Cyrano is a poet and a swashbuckler with a huge nose.  He is secretly in love with his cousin Roxane.  Roxane is attracted to the new recruit Christian.  Both express their desire to Cyrano and ask him to be their go-between.  Christian is bad at expressing his love and asks Cyrano for help.  Count de Guiche, another of Roxane’s suitors, sends the soldiers to war. Christian has Cyrano write letters to Roxane – whom he has married – during the deployment.  Roxane visits Christian and tells him she has been moved by the letters, and says she would still marry him even if he were ugly.  Christian is killed in the siege of Arras and his last letter to Roxanne is discovered on his body.  Fifteen years have passed, Roxane now lives in a convent, and Cyrano visits regularly.  One day he arrives wounded by an unknown enemy, and asks to read Christian’s final letter.  Roxane realizes that Cyrano has been the one writing the letters she love.  Cyrano dies in her arms.

Conductor – Marco Armiliato.  Christian – Atalla Ayan, Cyrano – Roberto Alagna, Roxane – Jennifer Rowley, de Guiche – Juan Jesus Rodriguez.

If the story sounds very familiar, it is because the movie “Roxanne,” starring Steve Martin and Darryl Hannah, is also based on the play by Edmond Rostand.  I don’t remember seeing the entire movie, but vaguely remember it has a good ending – no one dies.

Marco Alfano is best known as the composer who completed Puccini’s Turandot when Puccini’s death in 1924 left the opera’s third act unfinished.  Cyrano was composed more than 10 years later, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to make the connection between the two works.  Cyrano was premiered in Italian, today we heard the French version, as Alfano originally intended.

The Playbill characterizes the opera as “tragicomedy.”  In my opinion, the first two acts – mostly about unrequited and mistaken love interests, work mostly as comedy, and the second two acts – battle scenes and death – are in the tragedy column.  I recall some light-hearted moments.  The scene where Roxane asks to meet with Cyrano and tells about her love for someone, he initially thinks it is him, only to realize she is talking about someone else; it was done in a comedic manner.  The scene with Roxane in the balcony and Christian expressing his love, with Cyrano providing the prompts initially and eventually taking over, is also funny.  Acts 3 and 4 are basically sad, with the exception of Roxane describing how she charmed her way to the battle front.

The sets are quite cleverly designed: moderately complex, realistic, and effective.  They were first used in 2005 when the opera first appeared at the Met.  The various scenes depicted are: town square, bakery, house with balcony, battle scene at Arras, and convent.  There were shorts pauses between Acts so the sets could be switched.  Tonight’s was the tenth performance by the Met, ever.

The music does not sound as modern as one would think.  One comparison is with Lulu, which was composed at around the same time.  While there are really no memorable melodies, the lines were smooth, the harmony close to traditional.  I couldn’t tell if it was more French or Italian.  Also, my seat was off to the right side, so a lot of the orchestra music sounded a bit muddled.  The principal singers all did well, and there are a few memorable arias that both showcased their technical prowess and their emotional range.  The chorus was well-prepared for the choral numbers.

The New York Times has a background article on the opera, and a mostly positive review of the first performance (same one I saw.)  It turns out Rowley was an understudy for the role, but got this breakthrough chance because Patricia Racette withdrew due to illness.

Jennifer Rowley sang the role of Roxane.

I took the train in, and it was about 12:30 am that I got home.

Monday, May 01, 2017

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – David Danzmayr, conductor; Stefan Jackiw, violin. April 29, 2017.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC. Tier 1 (Seat D108, $52).

Suite from The Incredible Flutist (1938, suite extracted 1940) by Piston (1894-1976).
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 (1935) by Prokofiev (1891-1953).
Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 (1889) by Dvorak (1841-1904).

I knew of Walter Piston when I attended music theory classes as an undergraduate, he and Hindemith being professors of music and Harvard and Yale, respectively.  Today was my first encounter with his music, as far as I can remember.

The Incredible Flutist is a ballet based on the usual formulae of romance and comedy, the extracted suite comprises 13 sections played without pause, and is about 16 minutes in duration.  The Program Notes claims with its prominent dance rhythms the action is easy to follow; alas, it didn’t provide a listing of the sections, so I am not sure what I was trying to follow.

A couple of things stand out.  First is the orchestra members were asked to make noises during a crowd scene, with one doing a great job of barking like a dog.  Second is for a piece titled “The Incredible Flutist” I didn’t hear a strong flute theme; and there were two flutists, plus a piccolo.  The piece is pleasant enough, but has since receded from my memory.

I was first exposed to Prokofiev’s second violin concerto while in high school.  My own violin teacher was playing it as part of his quest to be awarded “fellow” by some British institute.  Together with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto, they were my first exposure to modern music.  The violin concerto is both technically challenging and passionate.

We heard Jackiw perform a couple of years ago with this Symphony Orchestra, where he played Dvorak’s Romance and Ravel’s Tzigane.  Those were pieces to showcase a violinist’s technical ability; Jackiw did fine for the most part.  Tonight was also a test of how he was as a musician and interpreter.

I thought he pulled off the piece technically, and did it with confidence.  However, the piece sounded dry and without a coherent message.  In that regard he still has a ways to grow yet.  I commented two years ago that his violin sounded adequate, but in the much larger Prudential Hall it sounded weak to someone sitting in Tier 1.

Jackiw after performing Prokofiev's Second Violin Sonata, with conductor Danzmayr looking on.

For some reason my reaction to Dvorak’s Eighth is either hot or cold.  I really enjoyed it tonight.  A lot of credit must go to the conductor Danzmayr, who leads the Zagreb (Croatia, I found out) Philharmonic.  He brought out a great sound from the orchestra.  He often didn’t keep track of the score and would end up turning the pages frantically to catch up.  But it seems to work for him.

The four movements of symphony are Allegro con brio, Adagio, Allegretto grazioso, and Allegro ma non troppo.  And the flute got a great workout in this work, much more than it did in the “Incredible” piece.

The attendance in Tier 1 was not great, with more than 50% empty seats.  Indeed NJSO was running a “$35 for best seat” program when I looked at their website.