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.

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Review: The Mozart Requiem, Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra

Saturday, August 20 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Louis Langrée, conductor
Concert Chorale of New York
James Bagwell, director

Joélle Harvey, soprano
Cecelia Hall, mezzo-soprano
Alek Shrader, tenor 
Christian Van Horn, bass-baritone

Mozart, Mass in C minor (1782)
Mazart, Requiem (1791)

Oh hi!  It’s been a while.  You know, I had plans this summer.  I was going to catch the NY Philharmonic in the park.  I was going to attend multiple Mostly Mozart concerts.  I was even going to sit through a chamber recital or two.  Well, here we are, nearing summer’s end and I have done none of those things.  What happened, you ask?  For one, for the first time since what seems like a lifetime ago, my beloved Cleveland Indians are having a good summer, and following them has been a time-consuming endeavor (which may or may be detrimental to my mental health as the summer turns to fall).  Secondly, I’ve been traveling every other weekend to catch up with friends from different periods of life, which has been great, but it has also made me crave downtime even more than usual.  Then there was this nagging upper respiratory track infection that I picked up along the way, and I’m not fond of going outside in the summer heat in general, plus there’s the Olympics, so yeah… it’s been so long since I’d gone to a concert that I almost got lost coming out of the subway at Lincoln Center.

Anyhow, the grand finale of Mostly Mozart featuring the stunning Requiem was an event that I would only consider missing over my own dead body.  (No, umm, pun intended?)   I know it inside and out.  Sure, there are many piano concertos that I’ve listened to more often, but the Mozart Requiem is the most complex piece of classical music that I have actually performed.  Back in 2009 I had sung it with the Penn choir (alto, in case you were wondering), and it was a wondrous experience.  I was befuddled by it nearly all semester, but in the final rehearsals it suddenly clicked and sounded like pure genius.  For a piece practically composed for the composer’s own funeral, it is morbidly scintillating.  That’s getting ahead of ourselves though, as I had to sit through the C Minor Mass first.  Missae solemnis, surprise surprise, aren’t my thing.  This one in particular is quite baroque and strangely joyous, but the performance, particularly the choir, sounded a little messy throughout.  David Geffen Hall acoustics are probably never going to be great anyway, though any evening without you wanting to cover your ears at the onslaught of brass winds is a good evening.

I’ve long maintained that if Mozart wrote nothing other than his 23rd Piano Concerto and Requiem, he would still be one of the greatest composers of all time.  Actually, Mozart only lived to see to completion about half of the Requiem.  His student Süssmayr is credited with “orchestrating the Dies irae and Offertorium, completing the Lacrimosa, and composing the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei outright”, according to the program notes.  As many times as I’ve listened to–and sung–the Requiem, the piece has always seemed like a seamless, cohesive whole without any perceptible stylistic shifts from one movement to another.  Whether it was intentional or not, however, Mr. Langrée seemed to conduct two different requiems, one culminating in the first eight gloriously lilting bars of Lacrimosa–the final notes of music of Mozart’s life–and the other thereafter.  It was a bit uneven to say the least.  The orchestra and the singers were slightly out of sync in the beginning, and though Mr. Langrée brought them to the same page toward the end, he conducted the Sanctus and Benedictus in an almost techno fashion.  Honestly, the Penn choir and orchestra’s performance was better, though to be fair we had more than three months to rehearse.  That Mostly Mozart is able to put on such strong programs year after year with only weeks’ preparation is something to be treasured, for sure.

A Valentine to My Hometown Band

Sunday, February 14 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

The Cleveland Orchestra
Mitsuko Uchida, conductor and pianist
William Preucil, concertmaster and leader

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 17 (1784)
Mozart, Symphony No. 34 (1780)
Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 25 (1786)

“Go to the orchestra. It’s the best orchestra in the whole wide world, arguably, and it’s right in our city. Take the money you were going to spend on the Browns, take your kids, and go to the (bleeping) orchestra.” –Drew Carey, as quoted by Joe Posnanski

On a bitterly cold and blustery night not unlike the hundreds that I had once spent in Northeast Ohio, I attended a Cleveland Orchestra concert for the first time.  I had been quick to take up with the orchestras of my other adopted cities–Philadelphia, New York, even San Francisco, however forgettable that experiment was–and musical experiences have shaped much of my perceptions of each place.  But not the city where I actually spent my formative years.  No, like everything else about the Midwest, one doesn’t know what one had all along until one–or it–is gone.  It’s a sports town, anyway.

And on this fine evening, the (quite literally) white-collar band from the blue-collar town played an all-Mozart program that, even sans its Austrian music director, is probably as old school European as one can find on this side of the Atlantic.  Actually the program started off rather shakily.  Dame Mitsuko Uchida, bless her heart, is undoubtedly one of the most esteemed Mozart interpreters of all time, but I’m not convinced that conducting from the piano bench suits her.  The first notes of the orchestra lacked focus and clarity, and the dame’s passionate gesturing seemed to be less for communicating directions to the orchestra players but rather to get herself–and possibly the audience–into the affect.  Of course, her own playing was crisp, thoughtful, and overall textbook flawless, but as impressive as it is to watch her at times playing the piano with one hand while conducting with the other, there was also one too many pause where a smoother transition should have been between orchestral parts and piano solos.  The woodwind passages in the second movement of Piano Concerto No. 17, however, were incredibly well-done.  Luxurious and profound, these were the best flute and oboe principals of any orchestra that I have heard yet.

In the symphony that followed, the orchestra showed that they are perfectly capable of playing without a conductor.   Symphony No. 34 isn’t among the more memorable of Mozart’s works, at least not for me, but I will remember this performance and how in sync the orchestra was, playing as if the nearly 50 musicians were one.  The Cleveland strings, though not the greatest in the world (but pretty close), imbued the score with a rather chamber-like quality, and it worked well.  While not the emotional gauntlet of a Beethoven symphony, it was nevertheless a very pleasant, intimate half hour of music that cleanses the ear, if not the mind.

Returning to the stage to once again conduct from the piano, Dame Uchida was more successful in her conducting with the final piece of the program, Piano Concerto No. 25.  While listening to it on Youtube earlier in the week, I found myself very drawn to the middle Andante movement, which had reminded me of that poignant Adagio from the composer’s 23rd Piano Concerto.  On this evening, however, lonesome was not the direction the soloist pursued.  Instead, the performance was majestic nearly throughout, as the pianist skillfully highlighted the composer’s expressive chromaticism while supplying her own cadenza that fastforwards the piece just ever so slightly into Beethovenian territory.  In fact the performance reminded me very much of Beethoven’s Fourth by the Berlin Philharmonic.  Not a bad band to be compared to, I suppose, though at the end of the night, I don’t think I’d heard enough to impartially assess Drew Carey’s claim.  I mean, he’s certainly right about the Cleveland Orchestra being a much better value for the buck than the Browns, but what isn’t?  Objectively though, the brass winds barely registered in the instrumentation tonight, and even the New York Philharmonic would sound like Berlin if the score didn’t call for brass.  But objectivity be damned, I am so proud to be a Clevelander right now.  Our sports teams may be perennial heartbreaks and the rest of America may only remember our state’s existence during presidential campaigns, but our orchestra is legit.  And better than Boston’s, that’s a promise.
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Review: Mozart and Beethoven, New York Philharmonic

Saturday, October 31 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Inon Barnatan, piano

Britten, Sinfonia da Requiem (1940)
Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 (1786)
Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 (1808)

When it is Halloween on a Saturday night and the Mets are playing in the World Series, there are millions of New Yorkers out and about in thousands of clubs and bars (and the parade).  The sheer number of them (and the parade route) presented considerable obstacle in my getting to Lincoln Center, though once there I had no problem obtaining a last-minute ticket to the New York Philharmonic concert.  On any other night, such a sensational program of Mozart and Beethoven’s best-known works ought to be sold out well in advance.  Or so I hope.

The concert opened with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, which I suppose makes some thematic sense, especially in relation to Beethoven’s 5th in the second half of the program.  Also, surely a New York band can’t have an entire program made out of such prosaic works as Mozart’s most evocative concerto and Beethoven’s best-known symphony (well, arguable, but one of his top three symphonies certainly, which is still saying a lot).  Sinfonia da Requiem has an interesting backstory: it was commissioned by the Japanese government for the occasion of the anniversary of the founding of the Japanese Empire.  By then Japan was already in war with China and allying with Germany.  Being a conscientious objector of war himself, and having lost his parents in the preceding years, Britten chose the opportunity to write “kind of a requiem” dedicated to the memory of his parents while expressing his anti-war conviction.  It is puzzling that anyone, let alone everyone–Britten, his publishers, the Japanese officials who evidently approved the proposal–thought this would be acceptable for the Japanese celebrations, and indeed upon completion it was rejected by the Japanese government for its Christian nature and overall somber character.  Being somewhat distracted myself, I didn’t pay much attention except for reading the program notes and as such can’t remark much else about the Sinfonia.  It certainly is a solemn piece, a memorial, and I believe one can hear the encroachment of war as well in the quiet marching rhythm of the middle section.

As I had written previously, I find Mozart uninteresting to listen to with a few important exceptions.  Piano Concerto No. 23 is one of such exceptions.  The first and third movements are playful and joyous and typical Mozart, but that middle adagio movement…I can think of no other movement in all of music that conveys so much weight in so few light keys.  Set in the rarely heard F-sharp minor, the piano solo is lonely and wounded, speaking few words as one does when no words can capture the depth of one’s sadness, trying at times to veer into the unexpected, but invariably falling back into a somber if stable resolution.  Every time that I listen, the piano represents a lonesome soul trying to break out of profound sorrow.  Less clear to me is what the orchestra represents.  Depending on my mood the orchestra is either the wall that the piano hits in its attempt to break free or the equally desolate if somewhat mellower outside world that the piano glimpses when it does.  Occasionally I hear the orchestra as offering a more mature and nuanced stance, trying to engage in dialogue with the piano to soothe its pain.  One can argue that these three interpretations are in fact not mutually exclusive.  Even less clear, then, is the relationship between the adagio and the very upbeat first and third movements surrounding it.  Perhaps each movement represents a phase of life: the first, the carefreeness of youth, the second, the difficult struggles of early adulthood–in particular those of unrequited love, and the finale, joy both well-earned and readily-expressed from the perspective of old(er) age.

Inon Barnatan’s performance is the first that I have heard live of this work.  Overall it was underwhelming, though the audience takes possibly the lion’s share of the blame.  Barnatan’s entrance in the first movement was too quiet and swallowed by the orchestra, as if he were not taking us on the emotional journey as it unfolds but rather reliving it in his memory, which I suppose he was.  The main letdown was the adagio, during which there were a lot of unsolicited noise from the audience–incessant coughing, a keychain that kept rustling, the loud thud of some heavy object being dropped–that completely ruined the delicate dynamic of the movement.  To my eye and ear, the pianist took the right gentle approaches to the music but just couldn’t sustain the spell with the audience’s coughing nearly drowning out his playing, at which point there were some questionable rushed notes here and there.  What a shame.

The second half of the program proved that the audience was capable of holding their coughs (which made their rudeness during the Mozart concerto even less excusable–does it suggest that the audience was bored by seven of the most profound minutes of the entire Classical repertoire?).  According to the program notes, while Beethoven was composing his Fifth Symphony, he was: losing his hearing, had an infection which threatened the additional loss of a finger, left to his own devices as his brother–who had managed much of his affairs–got married, himself rejected in love, constantly moving from lodging to lodging, and saw his adopted city of Vienna occupied by Napoleon’s troops.  I suppose life’s hardships tend to enhance an artist’s creativity.  Consider myself: dealt with socio-temporally adjusted versions of a subset of the same struggles that ensnared Beethoven, I am…writing this blog.  On the other hand, the Fifth–with its emphatic, chaotic, fatalistic themes–did not represent the whole of Beethoven’s life, or at least his outlook, at the time of its composition.  He had composed his understated Fourth and pastoral Sixth Symphonies during roughly the same time as the Fifth, which really is remarkable.

In any case, Beethoven’s Fifth is about as famous as any piece of classical music (maybe surpassed or equalled in that aspect only by his Ninth), and like the Mozart concerto, this was also the first time that I have heard this symphony live.  In a piece of music so pervasive in even pop culture, it can be hard to find anything new, but I thought Jaap van Zweden did a wonderful job both punctuating the famous motifs and bringing out some more subtle passages, even if subtle is not necessarily a word one would use to describe this piece.  In particular, the opening notes of the second movement were almost pastoral-like, something I noticed for the first time, possibly in reaction to reading the program notes.  Moreover, as much criticism as I have piled on this orchestra’s brasswinds, under van Zweden they contributed all the right amount of exaltations to the performance, and the woodwinds (with the exception of the contrabassoon) were excellent, especially the principal oboe whose solo passages effectively bridged themes for the rest of the orchestra.  A worthy interpretation and performance of this momentous piece of music.

Review: Brahms’s Double Concerto, Philadelphia Orchestra

Saturday, October 24 2015
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Orchestra
Donald Runnicles, conductor

David Kim, violin
Hai-Ye Ni, cello

Mozart, Symphony No. 29 in A major (1774)
Brahms, Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra (“Double”) (1887)
R. Strauss, Don Juan (1888)

The third week of October must be National Brahms Week or something.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra brought Brahms’s 2nd Symphony to Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic is presenting an all-Brahms program, kind of, with the 1st Symphony and the “Double” Concerto for Violin and Cello as well as Detleve Glanert’s Brahms-Fantasie, whatever that is.  Some 90 miles away, the Philadelphia Orchestra is playing the Double Concerto as well.  Whereas New York’s program features world-renowned soloists Lisa Batiashvili and Gautier Capuçon, Philadelphia is drawing from its own roster with concertmaster David Kim and principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni.  Naturally, this warrants a road trip to Philly.  (Well, that, and I have some quarterly errands to run in the old stomping grounds anyway.)

The first time that I attended a concert in Verizon Hall back in 2008, I thought the venue was somewhat of an anachronism.  Though beautifully designed in the shape of a violin, its sleek modern construction seemed contradictory to the mostly centuries-old music often heard on its stage.  Over time (thanks to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s amazing student ticket program), however, not only did I come to appreciate its ample amenities and carefully calibrated acoustics, it became the very emblem of the grad school phase of my life: high or low, light or heavy, all notes eventually came to pass as a rich, transformative melody is invariably left behind.  Filling the void.

Enough reminiscing for now, let’s get to the performance.  So, Mozart.  I have probably played (and sung!) more Mozart than I have of any other composer.  This is a true statement, though not particularly meaningful–we are talking about the difference between zero and epsilon.  I bring it up, however, because Mozart occupies a strange position in my aesthetics hierarchy.  With a few important exceptions, I find his music uninteresting to listen to, but when I play his music, I am always in awe of his genius. Playing Mozart is like what mathematicians say about tensor products: once you understand it, the concept seems so natural that it’s as if it’s always been part of your life, even if you were struggling with it in the very recent past.

With that in mind, and having never played the Symphony No. 29, or any symphony for that matter since I have never touched a string or wind instrument, I thought the piece—both the music and the performance thereof—was just OK. Though composed almost exclusively for strings, somehow I didn’t think it effectively showcased the Philadelphia Sound. It’s whimsical and effervescent, a change from the heavier motifs that would characterize the next century and a half of classical music, but it was also just…so ordinary to listen to. It did not help that, given the greatest string section in the world, the conductor didn’t ask for much except the right notes at the right tempo with just the prescribed, almost mechanical amount of levity. Yes, the end result still sounded good, but I would not have made the trek from New York just for this. Early-stage Mozart probably sounds best in a small, chamber-like setting in any case.

Of course, I didn’t make the trek just for the Mozart symphony. The main event was Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello. Post-Classical composers tend to write concertos that feature the soloist as an entity separate from the orchestra, and as such few concertos post-Beethoven feature multiple soloists. Brahms’s Double Concerto is an important and marvelous exception where both the violin and the cello are given ample virtuosic passages without overshadowing each other or the orchestra. Moreover, the soloists are given distinct voices and characters despite often playing the same melody at the same time.

The opening of the concerto was a bit shaky, with the cello entering on the lowest notes of its range before straining to reach its highest and then falling back. Ms. Ni struggled a bit with this entrance and was slightly off in pitch. (I had listened to a performance of this piece on Youtube featuring the Capuçon brothers as soloists and found that Gautier had struggled similarly.) Mr. Kim’s violin entered on the right pitch, but he played his initial notes so softly that they were barely audible. After reinforcement from the orchestra, however, the soloists promptly regrouped and, in the remainder of the first movement, combined to form a super-instrument that not only showcased their combined range, but also their combined textures and temperaments with the sweet, lithe violin and the assertive, full-bodied cello. The second movement has the two soloists gently leading the orchestra in a sentimental tune. The long, lyrical passages here is where Mr. Kim really shines. The final movement is a rondo built on a memorable gypsy theme introduced by Ms. Ni, who struck the right balance between playfulness of the melody and the inherent thoughtfulness of the cello. The soloists and the orchestra then took turns with the theme, showcasing the multifaceted relationships between the soloists as well as between the soloists and the orchestra. The soloists are at times partners, at times competitors, and the orchestra, unlike in most Romantic-era concertos, are not relegated to the background but rather support and imitate the soloists and vice versa. They complete each other’s phrases and accompany each other. Like a family.

Next to Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss is arguably the most prominent embodiment of the Romantic ideal of synergy between literature and music. (He is also, to my ear, the composer that John Williams copies most from. The Don Juan theme sounds so familiar, have I heard a derivative of it in Star Wars?) Apparently Strauss’s two favorite operas are Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Mozart’s Così fan tutte, so I suppose it makes sense that he superimposed undying love and passion’s fickleness to depict a man eternally in love with love in Don Juan. Though ostensibly a tone poem, Don Juan loosely follows the three-movement sonata form, with a remarkably tender and longing middle section that was played beautifully by the orchestra’s principal oboist Richard Woodhams. The ending was a memorable one, where Runnicles injected his only personal touch of the night with an extra-long pause after our anti-hero’s death before finishing with a subdued coda. In the 1890s, such music had been considered avant-garde. Will the atonal compositions of today be canonized by the 2140s by an audience more numerous than just New York music critics? I’d find that difficult to believe, or rather to accept. Of course, in all likelihood I won’t be around to find out. More depressingly, if the empty seats in Verizon Hall tonight were an indication, maybe nobody else will care to either.
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