Friday, July 28, 2017

Argus Quartet. July 26, 2017.

Princeton Chapel, Princeton University, New Jersey.  (Free)

String Quartet Op. 76 No. 5 by Haydn (1732-1809).
Satellites (2015) by Knox (b. 1956).
String Quartet No 15, Op. 132 by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Quartet Members
Jason Issokson, violin; Clara Kim, violin; Dana Kelley, viola; Joann Whang, cello.

The day before the concert, we got a call from PUSCC that the venue would be changed from Richardson Auditorium to the Princeton Chapel.  When the Series’s Artisti Director Melissa Bohl spoke at the beginning of the concert, she explained that a fire at the auditorium made the change of venue necessary.

The chapel is impressive, and quite large.  Attendance was quite good, filling a great part of the auditorium.  But alas, the place may be right for organ music – and we see a large organ – but for chamber music it doesn’t work.  There is simply too much echo in the cavernous hall, you can hear the reverb seconds (well, some exaggeration) after the playing stops.  While we got to the Chapel close to 30 minutes before concert start, we were about 15 rows from the stage, and could barely see the musicians.

I listened to the Haydn quartet quite a few times before the concert, so I had no trouble following along, even with the echo.  It was a pleasant start to the evening.  The movements are (i) Allegretto; (ii) Largo: Cantabile e mesto; (iii) Menuet: Allegro – Trio; and (iv) Finale: Presto.

The violist talked about the next composition.  Unfortunately she wasn’t miked up, and I could hear only part of what she was saying with my hands cupped behind my ears.  The first movement is Geostationary, Garth Knox wanted to describe geosynchronous satellites, they look stationary to someone on the ground, but both the satellite and the earth are moving at incredible speeds through space. Spectral sunrise describes what astronauts see while at the International Space Station.  One would think in this context “dimensions” would be along the lines of the grand unification theory where 11 dimensions are used.  Instead here they refer the different ways the bow can be used: across the strings, up and down, in circular motion, et.

It is always interesting to see how these ideas get realized in the actual composition.  One could argue, in this case, with some degree of success.  The question that remains, though, is: why?  From what I can remember of the piece, the first movement was indeed chaotic, but it didn’t go anywhere – that was perhaps the idea.  The second movement evokes Strauss’s Sunrise in Also Sprach, which was the idea?  But it certainly didn’t have the same dramatic effect.  All kinds of bowing were used in the third movement, and the players shook their bows a few times.  I was a bit worried that the bows might break.  Kim was in the first violin chair for this piece, but probably didn’t matter as each player seemed to be doing his/her own thing.

The bad acoustics really ruined the Beethoven quartet. Written a couple of years before Beethoven’s death, it belongs in the composer’s late period.  Even after listening to a couple of movements before going to the concert, I found the music difficult to grasp.  The rhythms were “unconventional,” the contrasts not as great as what one finds in the more familiar Beethoven works, and – for a quartet – it was very long at over 40 minutes.  Perhaps that is a characteristic of Beethoven’s late period during when the composer – per our friend David – wrote for future generations.  The Choral Symphony, completed a year before, was certainly easy to get.  All that added to a difficult 40 minutes.

We had trouble seeing the quartet members from where we sat.  We could barely see them when they stood up to acknowledge the audience's applause.

The Argus Quartet is in it fifth (or so) year, and was under the mentorship of the Brentano Quartet.  All the musicians are quite young.  It was too bad that their debut at Princeton was marred by the unfortunate change of venue.

We brought along the parents of Vivian, and had dinner with them and the Yees at Panera Bread.  It was pleasant conversation to and from Princeton, even though we got home quite late as we had to drop the Choys off.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Louis Langree, conductor. July 25, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat X02, $50).

Program – The Singing Heart
Kyrie, K.90 (1772) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphony No. 35 in D major, K.385 (“Haffner”) (1782) by Mozart.
Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal (traditional, arr. Alice Parker).
Tres Cantos Nativos dos Indios Krao (traditional, arr. Marcos Leite).
Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel (spiritual, arr. Moses Hogan).
Ah vous dirai-je, maman (traditional, arr. Francisco J. Nunez).
Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80 (“Choral Fantasy”) (1808-09) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Bernadette Peters – Host
Kit Armstrong, piano; Janai Brugger, soprano; Brandie Sutton, soprano; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Jack Swanson, tenor; Miles Mykkanen, tenor; Adam Lau, bass
Young People’s Chorus of New York City, Francisco J. Nunez, artistic director
Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell, choral director

Tonight was the opening night of the MM Festival, and there were several things unusual about the program.  For one, Bernadette Peters, better known as a Broadway singer and actress, was the host.  On the program were also several traditional songs sung by the YPC, backed up by the full orchestra.  The entire program was done without a break, although there was a short pause so the piano can be brought onto the stage for the Choral Fantasy. Finally, other than for the symphony, I would be listening to the pieces for the first time.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Peters as the host.  It worked out okay.  She read from her notes, and didn’t claim to be this expert trying to teach the audience something, although I found what she said quite informative.  One time she stumbled a bit while leaving the stage, and made the audience laugh by taking a bow; sense of timing still intact, even at age 69.

I had a chance to study up on the Mozart and Beethoven pieces, so was quite prepared for them.  The Kyrie was written by Mozart when he was 16 (and numbered K.90 already), and is quite straightforward.  As with the Vivaldi piece we heard earlier this summer, it had only the phrases “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.”  What was unexpected was this was done a cappella by the YPC.  And they sounded great!  One thing that remained puzzling to me was how these people got the pitch correct for the several pieces they sang during the concert.  I am quite sure not everyone had perfect pitch.

The Haffner Symphony wasn’t performed as a single piece, but rather in three sections: Allegro con spirito; Andante; and Menuetto and Presto.  Interspersed between the sections were the songs sung by the YPC.  From what Peters said, this was supposed to be how concerts were performed during Mozart’s time, and the songs (traditional and spiritual) were all written at around that time.  Overall it was a well-performed piece, and – despite the practice during Mozart’s time – I probably would have preferred the movements played together.  (Similarly, performing Mozart on period instruments is certainly interesting, but I’d rather listen to a modern orchestra.)

The few short songs interspersed in the program were quite enjoyable.  There was a lot of (coordinated) movement during the singing, and balance was always good among the different parts.  “Tres Cantos” is based on a melody sung by the Krao tribe of northwestern Brazil, and included many sounds of birds.  I thought the words must be Portuguese, but according to the Playbill “the meaning of the text is not known, it is treated here as a group of phenemes.”  The tune we know as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (and other children’s songs) was first sung as “Ah vous dirai-je, mamam” (“Ah shall I tell you, mother”) in France, a song describing a young woman’s awakening to love; it has been adopted by various composers such as Mozart and Beethoven.  Nunez made tonight’s a cappella arrangement to “continue the distinguished tradition” (per Playbill, and what chutzpah, per I).  For this song the YPC was joined by the Very YPC, making for a rather grand sight with them holding up little lights.  Despite my dig at Nunez, there is a lot of reason to be proud of these young and very young singers.  I had recorded the group in my blog before, in an ABT ballet performance, but didn't comment at all on how (or what) they did.  The New York Times review didn't talk about them either.

The structure of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy is a bit usual.  Per the Playbill, in a December 22, 1808 Beethoven led a concert that premiered the fifth and sixth symphonies, and the fourth piano concerto (with composer at keyboard), plus other works with vocalists and chorus.  For good measure he threw in this 20-minute piece with an unusual structure: it begins with a solo piano playing in an improvisation style, then introduced the orchestra, and concludes with vocal soloists and a chorus (excerpted from Playbill.)  The vocal section is very short, less than 5 minutes in total length, and is considered by many as a precursor to “Ode to Joy” in the ninth symphony.  Here there are six soloists instead of the four in the symphony.

After the performance of the Choral Fantasy.

I had listened to the piece a couple of times before tonight, and I still enjoyed it very much.  Kit Armstrong was born in 1992, but evidently started his music life at a very young age.  The Wikipedia entry on him contains some amazing information, including starting college at age 9 (although he didn’t graduate until he was 22.)  He is quite small, yet generated a great sound from the piano.  The choral part wasn’t as grand as that in the symphony, yet it was no less inspiring.  But I do pity the chorus, they had to sit there from the beginning of the concert.

As we were about to leave the auditorium after the conclusion, we found out there was going to be an encore piece.  It didn’t sound as good listening to it at the door.

The New York Times came out with a review soon after the program (not much work during the summer), and was generally effusive about the program and the performance.  One dig, though: "If the concept lacked focus, the rewards were many."

We bought tickets to three MM concerts this season, at a discount from  I still remember panning the sound of the orchestra a few years ago, they have certainly made great progress since then.

We left home early, worried that traffic would be bad during the summer.  It was not bad at all. Not feeling that hungry, we got takeout and ate next to the Julliard School.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Lysander Piano Trio. July 18, 2017.

Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University.  General Admission (Balcony Left, free).

Intermezzo from “Goyescas” by Granados (1867-1916), arr. Cassado (1897-1966).
Around a Cauldron (2016) by Cohen (b. 1980).
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 in E-flat Major by Liszt (1811-1886).
D’un matin de printemps by Boulanger (1893-1918).
Piano Trio in A minor (1914) by Ravel (1875-1937).

Liza Stepanova, piano; Itamar Zorman, violin; Michael Katz, cello.

This was another concert in the Princeton Summer Chamber Series.  I lamented in my last post that by the time I tried to get tickets on the web, they were all gone.  The website mentioned that some would be available at 6 pm on the day of the concert, and we decided to give it a try.  Anne was told there were a few tickets available, and she got two – I was trying to find a place to park the car.  We had a simple dinner a Mamoun again.  While the concert was well-attended, there were quite a few empty seats in the balcony (about 2 sections worth.)  I wonder how many who wanted to hear the concert didn’t show up because of this ticketing policy.  Today they scanned the tickets, which really wasn’t necessary.

The trio was formed while the musicians were in Julliard together in 2009, and has managed to snag a few prizes in the meantime.  I looked up Itamar Zorman on the web, he is the son of a composer father and a pianist mother, lives in Israel, was the recipient of an Avery Fisher grant, and plays a Guarneri violin.  Impressive credentials.

The musicians took turns remarking about the pieces on the program.  The Intermezzo was written by Enrique Granados as part of a Catalan opera based on Goya’s paintings so there would be time for scenery changes.  It was arranged into a piano trio y Gaspar Cassado.

Gilad Cohen got his doctorate in music from Princeton, and now teaches at Ramapo College.  His thesis and research seemed to concentrate to Pink Floyd.  On his website he refers to himself as an Israeli composer and pianist.  He was on hand to describe his composition, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth: dark forest night, cricket sounds, three witches (perhaps the trio?) dancing around a cauldron.  The piece has 7 scenes: In Dusk, Pounce, Transmutation, Boiling, Witches Waltz, Newts’ Lament, and Sacrificial; the last scene recalls some tunes – such as they are – from the first six.  While the scenes are self-explanatory, I found it difficult to tell where they were as the piece was played without a break.  There was a lot of screeching in the string instruments, and at some point the pianist stood up and did something to the sound board as she hit the keys.  This is a piece I would listen to again if I have the chance, and also perhaps to understand its structure in more depth.

Gilad Cohen joined the Lysander Trio after performance of his Trio "Around a Cauldron."

According to the cellist, Liszt was considered a superstar in his day.  The Hungarian Rhapsodies were originally written for the piano, but Liszt transcribed No. 9 for the piano trio as well, and this is the only known chamber music the composer wrote.  The piece is longer than I would expect of a Rhapsody, and presented a lot of challenges for the musicians, which they tackled with ease.

Lili Boulanger was from a musician family.  She was considered a prodigy at age two, and was the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize in 1913.  Unfortunately, she contracted bronchial pneumonia at that age also, and lived only to age 24.  The symphonic poem “One Spring Morning” was composed during the last year of her life.  She transcribed the work into different forms, including a piano trio.

Ravel’s piece was quite long at about 30 minutes.  It consisted of four movements Modere; Pantoum: Assez vif; Pasccacaille: Tre large; and Finale: Anime.  Zorman didn’t use the provided microphone when he described the piece, so I missed some of it.  The first movement is marked 8/8, but the structure of the measure is 3-2-3.  I had a look at the music beforehand, but the sound wasn’t as unusual as I expected.  The second movement is Malaysian in character, although I couldn’t tell.  The third movement is a Passacaglia.  The last movement describes a dawn that was both glorious and terrifying. 

For the encore they played Joseph Suk’s Elegy.

As I looked over the blog, I noticed there was much discussion about the music, but not much about how it came across.  The musicians met the challenges, and overall the sound balance was very good.

However, in the middle of Ravel I felt a bit tired.  Not physically tired, but I didn’t find the piece engaging.  That could be the length of the program, or how the pieces were ordered in the program.  For instance, trying to grasp the Cauldron piece required a lot of mental energy, and I might have decided not to work as hard at getting the Ravel trio.

Oh, we were wondering how the pianist turned the pages on her iPad.  We noticed from its blinking green light the foot-switch used for that purpose.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Brentano String Quartet. July 9, 2017.

Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University.  General Admission (Balcony Right Rear, free).

Madrigal set (arr. Steinberg for string quartet) by Gesualdo (1566-1613).
The Fifth Book by Hartke (b. 1952).
Quartet No. 7, op 59, no. 1, “Razumovsky” by Beethoven (1770-1827).

Mark Steinberg, violin; Serena Canin, violin; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Lee, cello.

This concert was part of the Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts series.  The concert was also billed as the PUSCC 50th season celebration concert.  Perhaps for this reason the auditorium was filled; a friend couldn’t get a ticket because the concert was sold out – even though isolated empty seats were around.  The quartet began its association with Princeton as far back as 1999, and has progressed from a relatively unknown ensemble to a well-established group which also mentors other quartets.

Each piece on today’s program is from a different century.  One could argue the piece by Carlo Gesualdo had 21st century elements in it as it was arranged from the 16th century piece by Steinberg.  The set consists of three movements, it is not clear from either the Program or the introduction by Scott Burnham how they were chosen from the many Gesualdo had written.  Without the words associated with the specific madrigals I couldn’t quite tell what the quartet was trying to say.  The tunes and harmonies were pleasant enough to listen to, though.

As to the piece by Stephen Hartke, the Program contains the sentence “Commissioned by the Brentano Quartet for their Fragments Project in celebration of their 20th Anniversary.  The work reflects on the first movement of an unfinished quartet by Shostakovich.”  Burnham’s commentary didn’t talk about the Shostakovich linkage at all, he rather referred to the piece as a quartet trying to sound like a madrigal (as opposed to madrigal made to sound like a quartet for the earlier piece.)  Interesting observations, but my ears (and mind) couldn’t get that characteristic, in no small due to my lack of knowledge of madrigals.  I often ask the question of contemporary music: will I remember it after a while?  I am writing this 4 days after hearing it, and I have no recall of what it sounded like.

[Note added 7/17/2017.  I noticed I did write some notes about this piece.  The five movements denote respecitively winter, spring, summer, fall, and winter again, with the third movement as the central one.  I did remember thinking all the seasons showed quite a bit of calmness.]

Perhaps due to the first two pieces in the program, I really appreciated the Beethoven quartet.  It was rather long at about 40 minutes, and consisted of Allegro; Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando; Adagio molto e mesto; and Theme russe, Allegro.  I had looked over the score while listening to a YouTube recording, so was somewhat prepared to have a good listening session, and I did.

Brentano Quartet.

This was the third time we saw the quartet, with the first being in 2005, 12 years ago.  The players looked as young as they did then, and I thought they improved quite a bit over the years (fewer intonation problems, good balance, etc.)  And PUSCC has come a long way also.  The Program is upgraded from a two-sided sheet to a high quality pamphlet.  Honestly the content was as minimal as before, so I hope they are making a lot of money from advertisements.

This is the second year they have gone to electronic tickets, making it easy for someone who might go to get a ticket.  The downside was our friend couldn’t get tickets for this concert, and I couldn’t get them for the next concert.  I wonder if they have developed a robust “overbooking” algorithm to account for the no-shows yet.

Packed Richardson Auditorium.

The concert was at 3 pm in the afternoon, and Princeton was busy on a Sunday afternoon.  We had to park in the municipal lot.