Reaction: Lugansky Plays Rach 3 with Philadelphia Orchestra

Friday, April 29 2017
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Orchestra
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934)
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909)

When all of your favorite things converge in an occasion that you’ve fantasized about for years and counted down for month, realizing that you missed the last NJ Transit train is pretty darn close to seeing your life flash before your eyes.  But since I would only miss my favorite soloist playing my favorite piano concerto with my favorite orchestra in my favorite music city over my own dead body, I shelled out an arm and a leg for an Amtrak ticket.  It was absolutely worth it, because Nikolai Lugansky playing Rachmaninoff with the Philadelphia Orchestra is everything that’s great about being alive.

Part of Philly’s Rachmaninoff Festival, with any other soloist, this ultra decadent program would probably have been too much of a good thing.  Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a tad saccharine to start with, but fortunately Mr. Lugansky is the ideal pianist to bring out its exquisite and soaring beauty while giving an overall grounded performance.  Sitting directly above and behind the orchestra, the proximity of the drums and brass took some getting used to, though I did have the best view in the house of the pianist.  Pure joy emanates from his playing, yet never indulgently so.  One of Mr. Lugansky’s artistic choices was taking ever-so-slightly longer pauses at junctures where the music was in danger of floating away.  On paper this seems counter to the spirit of the piece, but executed with urbane precision it worked splendidly.  Several years ago a critic had remarked that “[Mr.] Lugansky resurrected this work from the depths of familiarity”, which I think is the best way to describe this performance as well.  It helps that guest conductor Mr. Denève is rather understated himself, deferring to the soloist for the most part but not afraid to highlight the orchestra when the score calls for it–Philadelphia was Rachmaninoff’s favorite orchestra, after all.

I have been waiting for a Rach 3 concert in Philly for a long, long time now, because the last time that I went to one was the most bizarre concert-going experience of my life, and because no other piece of music invokes as many memories of my final year in the city.  In December 2012, the last time Rach 3 was on the Philadelphia Orchestra programming,  a broken water pipe had caused a traffic jam near Kimmel Center, delaying the arrival of many concert attendees and leading the ushers to over-seat the student ticket holders.  Then after a sensational first movement with Denis Matsuev as the soloist, dozens of student ticket holders were asked to leave to accommodate the late arrivals who paid full price for their seats.  This was actually my first time hearing Rach 3, and being so riveted by that first movement, instead of leaving altogether, we stood outside Verizon Hall and watched the rest of the concerto on a live video feed.  I sent a strongly worded email to the orchestra afterwards and was promised that my tribulations weren’t going to be in vain, and the following fall I did observe improvements to the program and like to think that I had something to do with it.  Perhaps to compensate for the experience, in the ensuing months I would listen to Rach 3 over and over again.  That summer I was commuting to New York for a gig at Columbia, and I vividly remember the music accompanying me at absurdly early hours on Monday mornings as the Philadelphia skyline disappeared from view as well as on Friday evenings when I was stuck in traffic in godforsaken parts of New Jersey but nevertheless felt relieved to be going home.  I remember how the second movement sounded different every time I listened to it (still does), how the dazzling ossia cadenza and the explosive finale never failed to make my heart burst (still never fails to), and how much I was already missing the city that had introduced me to such transformative music.  I still miss you, Philly.

On this evening I can’t say that I was able to consistently stay in the moment during the performance of Rach 3; there was the weight of the anticipation, the discomfort of spring allergies, and the stress of work gnawing at me despite my best efforts to block it out.  But still it was a near perfect experience of a near perfect performance, marred only by an inexcusable cell phone going off during the ossia cadenza.  After all, I’ve long believed that Rach 3 is best performed–and experienced–by holding just a little bit back, for otherwise one may be swept away by its dizzying percussiveness.  Impatient as I was for the culmination of the music to provide a long sought-after closure, I was nevertheless desperately wishing for time to slow down so that I can properly enjoy and process this long-awaited occasion.  And when it was all over and I was on my way back to New York, I was already pining for the next time the stars would align, as I used to fantasize about on many other trips out of Philadelphia.  There is an exquisite pain that accompanies this kind of longing, but at the same time, life without it would be inconceivably more bleak.

Reaction: Ballet and Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra

Saturday, March 7 2017
Carnegie Hall, New York NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano
John Relyea, bass

Tchaikovsky, Selections from Swan Lake (1876)
Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle (1911)

It seems that Philadelphia Orchestra plays at Carnegie Hall exclusively on days when the New York Philharmonic doesn’t have a concert, you know, to show them how it’s done.  And the rest of the ensembles from Lincoln Center too, while we are at it.  In one of his first New York concerts since being anointed as the next Music Director of the Met, Yannick Nézet-Séguin brought his own orchestra to play ballet and opera scores.  Even if this orchestra will not be accompanying him in the pit of the Met, if the concert were any indication, at least one of the Lincoln Center institutions is in good hands.

Generally speaking I’m not a ballet fan, but I just love the music of Swan Lake.  Hearing it being played one of the greatest orchestras in the world is such a special treat; no slight to ballet orchestras, but the difference in quality is considerable.  I especially love the Swan Theme, how it sounds so pure and angelic in the opening scene of Act I, but becomes discerning and ominous when transformed into a minor key later to accompany the black swan.  The warmth and lushness of the Philadelphia Sound is the best possible vessel for the sumptuous romanticism of this score.  The other selections performed were clearly designed to shine spotlight on the orchestra’s outstanding principals, especially the Neapolitan Dance, with its awe inspiring trumpet solo, and the Russian Dance, which concertmaster David Kim injected with a diabolically sultry flair.  Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s conducting was passionate as ever, and each time that I’ve seen him in concert in the past few years, I hear more control and polish as well.  What wouldn’t I give to hear this orchestra play the Swan Lake score in its entirety sometime!

Having squeezed in only three hours of sleep the previous night (or rather morning), and having left work with some preoccupations, I had planned to leave during the intermission, as Bartók and opera are not topics that I enjoy tackling even with a clear mind.  But the first half of the program was so brilliant, that I decided to stay for Bluebeard’s Castle.  Since my job has been requiring my total concentration, I didn’t have a chance to listen to the music beforehand.  With Bartók, the typical concern there would be that I didn’t get a chance to pre-screen the music for symptoms of atonal madness, but that didn’t end up being an issue.  There were no issues, really.  The orchestra was fantastic as always, especially the brasswinds, at once smooth and dynamic.  The singers’ voices, remarkably, were just as strong at the end of the hour-long performance as they were at the beginning.  I suspect that if I were more knowledgeable about the genre, I would hail this one-act opera as a masterpiece.  But I’m not, and being underprepared and overstressed as I was, I can’t pretend to have gotten much out of sitting through it.  Instead I spent much of the hour being fascinated by the three trumpet players who played from the second tier of the seating area.  Have orchestra members always been planted in the seating area of Carnegie Hall to create greater depth of acoustics?  This is the kind of thing that makes me wonder about my perception of reality.  That, and I really need to sleep.

Review: Nikolai Lugansky Plays Brahms’s First, Take Two

Saturday, March 4 2017
Carnegie Hall, New York NY

St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov, conductor
Nikolai Lugansky, piano 

Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1858)
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 (1937)

Here comes another March, which means I’m another year older.  It must have been a deal that I made with the Devil in a previous life: a ruthless iteration of age, in exchange for a. baseball’s return every March and b. Nikolai Lugansky’s North American tour each spring.  Last year, if you remember–though why would you–I rode the bus all the way to DC to hear him play Brahms with the NSO.  Had I known that he would be performing the same concerto a mere 12 months later in my own backyard, I would have…still gone to DC, of course.  I would travel to the end of the earth, or at least the continental United States, uh make that the East Coast, to hear him play anything.

I have listened to Brahms’s First many, many times, and every time I’m mesmerized by the way it can be meditative one moment and rhapsodic the next.  Unlike, say, Mozart’s piano concertos, which all sound the same to me (except for the Adagio of the 23rd), there is so much variety within just the first movement, it’s as if the composer were trying to summarize the entire German music history in the span of a concerto.  Listening to Brahms live is a somewhat paradoxical experience.  On the one hand, not only have I never seen an orchestra play completely in sync with the pianist and with each other, I can’t even imagine it happening, as there are just too many moving parts.  On the other hand, despite the inevitable messiness, listening to the piece live stimulates the senses in a way that a perfect recording simply can’t.  In particular, it really emphasizes the composition as a dialogue between the piano and the orchestra, and as often is the case in real life, the most productive dialogues tend to feature elements of tension and conflict, which is reflected in both the score itself and the musicians’ performance.

As for Mr. Lugansky, each time that I’ve seen him live, he’s moved a little bit to the left on the Maurizio Pollini to Lang Lang scale of musicianship.  I can discern cracks now in his urbane aloofness that reveal a more intimate and passionate style.  Of course, one cannot play Brahms the same way one plays Rachmaninoff (if one can play either at all), and I’m curious to see how his Rachmaninoff is these days, but just last year I had remarked that Brahms “requires perhaps more explicit emoting on the pianist’s part”, and indeed tonight he was outwardly emotional beyond the immense energy that already emanates from his breathtaking virtuosity.  Compared to last year’s concert with the NSO, Mr. Lugansky definitely seemed more at ease with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, though their collective interpretation of the music was a little different from what I’m used to.  Motifs rolled legato style into one another instead of breaking assertively in between; to what purpose, I’m not sure.  As dependably crisp as the pianist was, overall there was a lethargic hull over the performance, as if the entire orchestra came with a soft pedal.  To be fair, perhaps it was actually I who was lethargic–20 degree weather and too much SQL at the end of a long and angsty week can be disorientating.

On any other night, Shostakovich’s Fifth would be the headliner of the concert, and even on this night, it technically was.  But just as I was in no mood to review Beethoven’s Pastoral after Mr. Lugansky’s Brahms last year, I am too worn out to give the symphony its proper due.  Someday though, there will be a long essay exploring the enigmatic score and its political and personal context, and any performance thereof will be scrutinized accordingly.  For now I will just note that of all the composers that I regularly listen to, Shostakovich is possibly the one whose music I re-interpret most frequently.  Tonight I heard the Fifth as a dark parody of the traditional Romantic symphony, but Mr. Temirkanov presented this view while conducting, I think, apolitically.  The conflict between the upper and lower strings in the opening movement sets the tone, and the second movement, formally a waltz-like scherzo, is covering up for something sinister.  The shattering finale, however, played out as more triumphant than chilling, and some may see that as a political statement in and of itself.  Ultimately, it was a fine, layered performance with (seemingly?) contradictory messages, which at least on a meta level is worthy of the composer.

Reaction: Schoenberg and Schubert, Vienna Philharmonic

Sunday, February 26 2017
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Vienna Philharmonic
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht (1943)
Schubert, Symphony No. 9 (1826)

When you’ve been pulling 12 hour workdays and battling a semi-serious cold, there is a strong inclination toward spending the entire weekend on the couch.  When it’s late February and baseball has finally returned in the form of spring training, the couch looks even better.  But then you notice that the Vienna Philharmonic is in town and a $36 ticket is available (the top balcony seats go for $88), and that they are playing pre-atonal Schoenberg.  So you have to ask yourself: when will you ever have a better opportunity to check off “attending a Vienna Philharmonic concert live” and “listening to Schoenberg at all” from your classical music bucket list?  The answer is likely never.  Off you go, then!

I feel that when most people say they don’t like classical music, it’s because they perceive classical music as boring.  Heck, there are about 100 Haydn symphonies that I wouldn’t pay to listen to either.  I very much doubt, however, that anyone doesn’t like Schoenberg on account of his music being boring.  Atonality can actually really mess with you–I’m still scarred after trying to cram “Pierrot Lunaire” in the middle of the night in a dark dorm room more than a decade ago.  Yet Schoenberg wasn’t born that way, apparently; he had taken Romanticism to its breaking point earlier in his career before sending it over the edge.  “Verklärte Nacht” was one such hyper-Romantic early piece, where, according to the program notes, “tonality is still very much alive, though one can hear symptoms of its oncoming illness”.  Not exactly reassuring, and there were occasions (especially during the violin solos in the middle) when I started raising my shield, but overall “Verklärte Nacht” isn’t that much of a departure from late Mahler or, dare I say it, Wagner.  When I had listened to a recording of the piece earlier in the week, I remarked how I couldn’t shake off this sense that I had just returned from a parallel universe, and that disconcertingly I couldn’t tell if my real universe is the one I left behind or the one that I returned to.  The Vienna Philharmonic, on the other hand, played the all-strings arrangement so literally that the piece was bereft of cosmic implications.  Instead it was just beautiful music, maybe even what the layman would consider boring, which, honestly, is the best thing I’ve ever said about Schoenberg.

From the breaking point of Romanticism, the orchestra went back in time to give us Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, a seminal work of Romanticism’s nascent years.  Actually, can one use the word “seminal” to describe Schubert?  I often forget that he existed as a contemporary of Beethoven, or that he existed at all.  In the last one and a half years of concert-going without even trying to avoid him, this is the first time that I’ve come across his music.  For whatever reason I had lumped Schubert together with Richard Strauss, whose music is enjoyable at times but the structure of which I can never discern.  After listening to recordings of the Ninth Symphony all week and not having much luck visualizing its scope on my own, Mr. Welser-Möst’s streamlined, structured presentation of it was quite helpful.  The waltz-like scherzo is still in my head, along with the lyrical second movement.  The high-spirited finale, in my view, actually looks backward to Beethoven and predecessors instead of forward as one might expect of the so-called “First Romantic Symphony”, but that may just be as well, for a chaotic fate awaited at the other terminus of the era.

Reaction: Beethoven and Mahler, New York Philharmonic

Wednesday, February 16 2017
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Inon Barnatan, piano

Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1797)
Mahler, Symphony No. 1 (1888)

This blog, being 1.5 years and some 40 blog posts old now, is at a cross road.  On the one hand, writing semi-critically about concerts has profoundly deepened my understanding and appreciation of music and (most) musicians.  On the other hand, however, free time is becoming more and more of a luxury, and I’m not sure the best way to spend it is rehashing how much I cringe at New York Philharmonic’s brass.  In the longer term I may have to be selective in which concerts to blog about or quit altogether, but for now I’m going to post brief “reactions” in lieu of longer and (what are intended to be) more cerebral “reviews” for concerts that stir up nothing new in me.  I imagine this will cover all the New York Philharmonic concerts in the foreseeable future.

Now, as for the music itself…I’m obviously no musicologist, in fact I didn’t even bother reading the program notes, but on some level I perceive Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony to be very similar in the context of their respective composer’s opus.  Both are early works with glimpses of the cosmic themes that would dominate the composers’ later periods, yet both feature childlike elements of joy and wonder.  I thought the Beethoven went really well.  (Well, the piano was a little too quiet to start, but I say the same about every piano concerto performed with this orchestra.)  In fact, I was surprised to read in my own blog that I’ve already heard Mr. Barnatan perform Mozart’s 23rd–he made no impression at all with a forgettable performance of an impossibly unforgettable piece of music.  On this evening he played Beethoven as few do anymore, balancing emotion and restraint, wonder and maturity.  The orchestra took a more transparent approach and didn’t hold anything back.  I’m used to the second movement being played with more tenderness, but in this performance Mr. Honeck turned the orchestra’s usual weakness in its lack of nuance into a strength, underscoring the element of innocence in the concerto.

The Mahler went pretty well too, modulo my usual complaints about the brass, which especially affected the first movement.  The third movement was absolutely sublime, with the smoothest, most haunting double bass solo playing a familiar but contorted nursery rhyme, answered in turn by the oboe.  In all the recordings I’ve ever heard of this symphony, the oboe happily blasts dance tunes over the funeral march.  Principal oboist Liang Wang, a prince among men, expressed so many emotions in so few measures, imbuing the typically playful grace notes with heartbreaking sensitivity.  Twenty minutes later, the finale was explosive beyond words; I don’t know if Mahler’s First *should* sound quite so earth-shattering, but overall the performance worked.

Review: Tchaikovsky Festival, New York Philharmonic

Thursday, February 2 2017
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano

Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1879)
Tchaikovsky, Manfred Symphony (1885)

Oceans rise,
Empires fall;
The horn is off-key
Through it all.

The New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall is nothing if not consistent.  The acoustics is bad, the brass winds are worse, and the audience clap prematurely when not marring the performance with incessant coughing–that much you can always count on.  In these otherwise inconsistent times, these familiar shortcomings of the orchestra and concert hall are almost reassuring.

Speaking of which, the Tchaikovsky piano concerto started predictably with an off-keyed intro by the horn, followed by a timid entrance of the piano.  (This orchestra, with its sheer size, invariably drowns out the soloist at the onset of concertos.)  Then things got unpredictable, as in I couldn’t recognize the music being played.  I mean, Tchaikovsky’s First is an odd piece of composition in that its most famous theme is only heard twice at the very beginning, and without refrains of the theme as markers it is difficult to extract the form of the composition, so no matter how many times I listen to the piece, parts of the middle passages always seem new to me.  But tonight’s performance sounded much more foreign than that; stylistically it sounded almost, dare I say it, German?  It wasn’t until after the concert that I realized Mr. Gerstein had performed a rarely-heard version of the concerto, and that the version one typically hears was published after Tchaikovsky’s death and may or may not have been authorized by the composer.  In recent interviews Mr. Gerstein suggested this earlier version to reflect a “a more lyrical, almost Schumannesque conception of the concerto”.  That explains it then.

I’m not the biggest fan of programmatic music, but Tchaikovsky is probably the most tolerable composer for it.  He keeps fillers to a minimum while leaving just enough to the interpretation.  Moreover, Tchaikovsky is generally very accessible in that most of his music is pleasurable even at the first listening.  The Manfred Symphony is no exception, though I noticed that the memorable highlight of the final movement is suspiciously similar to the theme of the bacchanale from Samson and Delilah.  The waltz-like scherzo section also reminds me of the second movement of the composer’s own Sixth Symphony, but more celestial.  I think Mr. Bychkov brought the best possible performance out of the orchestra, fully emphasizing its rich strings and smooth woodwinds.  For once the prohibitive size of the orchestra is a strength instead of liability, as Mr. Bychkov somehow got the over 100 musicians to play as one.  Some pieces of music never sound as polished in person as they do in recordings (Chopin’s First, for instance), while some others, like the Manfred Symphony, must be heard live to be truly appreciated.  Its operatic quality doesn’t come across well over YouTube, but under the seemingly effortless baton of the conductor, theatrics abound.

Review: Staatskapelle Berlin with Daniel Barenboim

Sunday, January 29 2017
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim, conductor and piano

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 (1786)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 9 (1896)

The lady next to me called Daniel Barenboim “the guy who was married to Jacqueline du Pre”.  Well, I guess that’s one way of putting it, even if his Mozart was underwhelming today.  He and his highly regarded orchestra seemed worn out, which is understandable given that this was the final concert of their ambitious Bruckner cycle at Carnegie Hall over the past week and half.  (That, and it can’t be easy to be foreigners in America right now.)  Moreover, some pieces, such as Mozart’s sublime 23rd piano concerto, probably shouldn’t have the conductor doubling as the soloist.  The first movement sounded thin and messy, perhaps under-rehearsed.  The achingly beautiful second movement was unfortunately a complete throwaway–in a movement where every note demands to be finished off and the spaces between notes are not meant to be rushed, Barenboim was forced to tend to the orchestra at the expense of his own instrument.  The upbeat final movement somewhat salvaged the performance, as the simpler rhythmic patterns and less conflicted pathos allowed the percussive piano and lilting strings to shine.

I’m not at that point yet in my music education where I can pretend to understand Bruckner.  When I listen to his symphonies, especially the Ninth, I hear grandiose designs of Beethoven at times and cosmic darkness of Mahler at others, but overall the music is a bit eccentric and inaccessible.  Nevertheless, I sense that the orchestra was much better prepared and suited for the Bruckner than it was for the Mozart.  Without being able to follow the symphony’s own structure, I sat through the performance by imagining it as the score to a highlight reel of the 2016 World Series.  Turns out that may actually be onto something, as the music’s endless highs and lows eventually lead into a fervently hopeful build-up that explodes in a wrenching, dissonant diminished seventh chord.  Several seconds of abyss follows before a harmonic but muted adagio-like epilogue wraps up the journey.  As a diehard Cleveland fan, that’s not altogether different from how I think of the World Series, if I have the heart to think about it at all, in retrospect.