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.

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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: The Four Seasons, New York Philharmonic

Friday, June 3 2016
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Frank Huang, leader and violin

Grieg, The Last Spring (1881)
Piazzolla, Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (1965-1970, arr. L. Desyatnikov)
Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (1723)

Before we get started, I just want to say that I’m beyond pleased with the news that Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be the next music director of the Met *as well as* remaining music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra for at least another decade.  Not only does he combine first-rate musicianship with magnetic charisma, on a personal note it is of great comfort to me that one of the constants of my life since the early days of grad school will continue to be a nearby presence for the foreseeable future.

Now, this seasonal concert by the New York Philharmonic is the 32nd concert I’ve attended since starting this blog.  32 in less than a year.  That’s a lot, though to be honest, it’s probably less than what I’d managed in previous years.  I think the demands of writing this blog have made me more selective in choosing concerts and leaning toward programs and/or performers that I know beforehand I’d feel strongly enough to write about.  In many ways this is good, as taking the time to reflect and critique has deepened my understanding and interpretation of many masterpieces.  But on the other hand, putting more effort into music and orchestras that I already like means I’m missing out on opportunities to expand my horizon.  I hardly go to chamber performances or recitals anymore, and, for that matter, have significantly reduced my attendance of New York Philharmonic concerts in the past six  months.  It’s a prestigious ensemble and all, but it’s just so…blah, even when it plays crowd favorites with reasonable technical proficiency, as it did tonight with a strings-only (no brass!  thank goodness) concert anchored by Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (which the Philharmonic tepidly advertised as an “undisputed classical Top 40”).

Don’t get me wrong, the musicians did a fine job, particularly concertmaster Frank Huang, who double dutied as solo violinist and orchestra leader and thoroughly displayed his mastery of both roles.  The three season-themed pieces of music performed this evening are each distinctively beautiful and together form an ingenious program, but still I left the concert speechless, as in I have nothing substantive to speak of.  It probably doesn’t help that, as a ticket became available only in the last minute, I had never listened to the Grieg piece or the Piazzolla before.  As Milan Kundera said, what can life be worth, if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?  Or something to that extent.  Bottom line is that music, particularly instrumental classical music, is not typically accessible on the first pass.  Nevertheless, first impressions of The Last Spring: elegiac and haunting, fresh yet wistful.  As the title suggests, the piece is based on a text recounting the story of a dying man observing his last spring, and the poignant contrast between the new beginning that the season nominally promises and the imminent end that the dying man faces tugs at the (heart)strings.  I see it as a companion piece to “To the Spring” from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, which has always struck me as a bright, wondrous first spring of sorts.

I’m not typically a fan of Alan Gilbert’s penchant for non-traditional music, though in this case I am glad that he snuck an Argentine take on the four seasons into a program showcasing the more traditional Vivaldi one.  Like with the Grieg, I will have to listen to Four Seasons of Buenos Aires again, but it seems to be a sultry tango that pays homage to Vivaldi by incorporating his chords and formal patterns while remaining thoroughly committed to the piece’s Argentinian soul.  What I particularly like is that the composition never takes itself too seriously, as it’s full of witty touches–particularly at the transition of seasons–that elicited several rounds of laughter from the audience.  Of course, even in winter Buenos Aires is a fun place with pleasant weather, so Mr. Piazzolla was fortunate that he was not composing Four Seasons of Cleveland or something (not least because beyond winter, construction, and sports heartbreaks, Cleveland doesn’t even have a fourth season, but I digress).  Mr. Desyatnikov deserves much praise as well for his arrangement of the piece–originally composed for violin, piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón–for solo violin and string orchestra, as I can’t even imagine that it could have worked in any other form. 

Finally, the main event, Vivalid’s glorious Four Seasons (more of a top 20 than top 40, I’d reckon), was a flop.  Not because of the musicians–as I clarified at the onset, they did well, particularly the solo violinist and the first cellist–but because of the audience, whose applause every few minutes mutilated the piece into disjoint bits.  Yes, I’m aware that technically The Four Seasons is a set of four violin concerti each with three movements of its own, but shouldn’t it be all about different registers of strings, through their contrasting textures, coming together and forming a cohesive portrait of the ebb and flow of, you know, the seasons?  Instead any thematic energy generated from one movement was not sustained into the next, and the performance became a taxing exercise in Baroque virtuosity.  Kind of wish that the Philharmonic’s own season ended on a stronger note, but oh well, here’s to summer.
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Review: Schumann and Brahms, New York Philharmonic

Wednesday, April 27 2016
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Carter Brey, cello

Franck Krawczyk, Après (2016)
Schumann, Cello Concerto (1850)
Brahms, Symphony No. 2 (1877)

Restless.  That seems to always be how I am when visiting David Geffen Hall.  Something about the unsettling orange glow of the place, or maybe it’s just the constant dread of the orchestra’s brass.  But alas I hadn’t been to a New York Philharmonic concert in almost half a year and wanted to take advantage of my last week of living near the red line.  I had just forgotten the possibility that, through no particular fault of the musicians, I would leave the concert feeling more anxious than I already was.

The opening piece, a world premier, is one of those Alan Gilbert specialties.  While the last movement–comprised of basically just the piano and the harp–was actually somewhat atmospheric to listen to, the rest of the piece sounded quite literally like nails on chalkboard.  At one point the musicians made music by tapping their instruments on the music stand.  Yes, I get it, the composer wants to make some point about liberating music from its tradition forms or whatever, but you will not convince me that this stuff should be consumed more than very sparingly.  Mr. Gilbert seemed completely at ease though, much more than he ever is with the standard repertoire.

And standard repertoire would dominate the rest of the evening.  On paper, Schumann’s Cello Concerto should be one of the instrument’s iconic showpieces.  Schumann writes the prettiest music.  I bet that’s what it says on his tombstone: “Here lies Robert Schumann.  He wrote the prettiest music.”  Set in the same key of A minor as his passionate piano concerto, one expects that such pedigree on a cello would be a soulful masterpiece.  In many ways it is, but the piece never quite rises above just being pretty notes strung together.  Any conflict present seemed superficial and simply there to fill in empty spaces between the prettiness.  Similarly, Mr. Brey, the orchestra’s principal cellist, gave a virtuosic yet uninspired performance.  In fact he played too much as a member of the orchestra and not enough as a soloist, competently but not assertively.  The end result was a half hour of lyrical notes and play whose sum was less than its parts.  To be fair, after Mahler and Shostakovich, all other music would probably sound superficial.

Going into the evening, I was pretty nervous about Brahms’s Second.  Considering how prominently the trombones feature in the symphony and how the New York Philharmonic has by far the weakest trombones of any major orchestra–seriously, I think my high school’s marching band had better trombone players–I waited for jarring mistakes from them as anxiously as I usually wait for the aforementioned nails-on-chalkboard kind of dissonance in new music.  As a pleasant surprise, the trombones and the brass in general made no disruptive mistakes.  The strings were curiously harsh toward the end, but I blame Mr. Gilbert for that more than anything else.  Overall the performance was fine: appropriately folksy at times, foreboding at others, even quite rousing at the end.  Yes, compared to the BSO performance of the same piece last year, the grand finale did not feel earned, but a less telegraphed conclusion would have been wasted on me anyway on this night.  It went better than expected.  What else can one want from life?

Review: Rachmaninoff Festival III, New York Philharmonic feat. Daniil Trifonov

Saturday, November 28 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Ludovic Morlot, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909)
Rachmaninoff, Symphonic Dances (1940)

Hey, it’s rachthree’s first Rach 3!  Needless to say, a special occasion.  It’s also my third time hearing–or trying to hear–Rach 3 in person.  The first time was in Philadelphia with Denis Matsuev as soloist, where after a stunning first movement, I, along with dozens of other student ticket holders, were kicked out to accommodate late-arrivals who held full-priced tickets to the seats.  This prompted a long and angry email by yours truly to the Philadelphia Orchestra management, who actually wrote back and promised to improve the eZseatU program to avoid such situations in the future.  Fastforward a year, indeed nobody was kicked out of Yujia Wang’s Rach 3, though having just flown back on a red eye from the West Coast, not to mention being at once repulsed by the pianist’s attire and jealous of her talent, I barely processed any of the performance.  Third time is supposed to be the charm, and I almost passed on these performances of Daniil Trifonov with the New York Philharmonic because I wanted my first good Rach 3 to be special–nothing against the uber-talented Trifonov, but the thought of NYPhil’s brass section made me cringe.  All concerts in the series had been sold out by early this week, but mere hours before tonight’s performance a cheap 4th-tier ticket became available, which I took as a sign and went ahead.

Rach 3 is my favorite piano concerto.  It is also one of the few pieces of music whose emotions, or at least emotional impact on me, is primarily derived from its rhythm instead of melody.  I’m referring mostly to the first-movement cadenza and the last 30 seconds of the second movement plus the entire third movement.  Compared to Rach 2, which is widely considered to be more expressive and lyrical, Rach 3’s appeal, though just as evident, is more difficult to capture and explain.  To me personally, Rach 2 is about love, whereas Rach 3 is about life and rebirth.  In particular, the first note of the third movement, which the end of the second movement flows directly into without rest, is that moment of resurrection.  It is absolutely essential that the pianist and the orchestra time the note perfectly.  For this alone, Olga Kern’s performance in the 2001 Van Cliburn competition will always be the trademark performance of the piece for me.  This is actually somewhat ironic, as I typically prefer Rachmaninoff to be played aloofly, since the music is so demanding already of both the performers and the listeners.  It’s like they say how runway models shouldn’t be too striking, lest that were to distract from the clothes that they are modeling.  Besides, it must take great restraint to not be emotionally bound by the music; it’s often difficult for me to remain composed just listening to it.  Olga Kern was certainly on the fiery side, but her youth and passion, combined with impeccable timing (which is probably more a tribute to the conductor James Conlon), made for a sensational performance.

I can’t be too critical of Daniil Trifonov–after all, anyone who can bang out Rach 3 is super human in my eye–but whereas Ms. Kern’s Van Cliburn performance lived the journey and the likes of Nikolai Lugansky skillfully narrate the journey, Trifonov’s playing felt like a talented and well-meaning kid trying very hard at the former, but, being 24 years old and probably exhausted from playing Rachmaninoff for a month straight, was burnt out by the beginning of the third movement and didn’t quite yet have the experience to pull off the latter.  The first movement cadenza was played with wayyyy too much pedal, which perhaps the young soloist thought would add depth to his playing.  But outside of that Van Cliburn concert, the magic of which even Ms. Kern herself hasn’t been able to replicate since, Rach 3 is best played clearly and from a distance.  The listener should be the one who is put through the gauntlet of emotions, not the pianist.  The pivotal transition from the second movement to the third was well done, but instead of building up to the multiple climaxes of the final movement, Trifonov seemed tentative and worn out, physically and mentally.  Who can blame him, after playing some of the most taxing works ever written for the piano in his 12th concert in three weeks.  It also didn’t help that the orchestra’s brass winds were even worse than usual, loudly playing off pitch like spoiled children arguing with the piano.  Look, Mr. Trifonov has a bright future ahead of him.  His Rach 3 has improved tremendously from an earlier Youtube video.  The same cannot be said of the brass wind musicians of the New York Philharmonic.  Seriously, this has to be the weakest brass section of any major orchestra.

Just as well, then, that the orchestra closed the Rachmaninoff Festival with the composer’s final large-scale work, the Symphonic Dances, which tolerates, at times even encourages, clumsy loudness from the brass.  (So long as the strings hold up; it was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, after all.)  As Rachmaninoff had lived in the US for over two decades by 1940, Symphonic Dances is an unsubtle combination of American and Russian elements of music.  Here I say combination, not blend, because the components remain rather distinct in the result.  The opening theme sounds like something that could be heard at any high school football game, and who knows, maybe it is played by marching bands.  Then there is a rather long saxophone solo.  Saxophone!  The quintessential jazz, and therefore by extension, American instrument.  The waltz-rhythmed second movement, however, is distinctly Russian in sound.  Perhaps sensing his own mortality, in the final movement the composer quotes both the Russian Orthodox liturgical chants and the Dies Irae of the Catholic Mass for the Dead.  A thoughtful callback to the very first piece played in this marathon festival, the Isle of the Dead.  One senses that, to Rachmaninoff, death was not the enemy, only the denouement of a tormented life, and as these concerts remind us, torment is, if not good for the soul, good for the soul of the posterity.  The Rachmaninoff Festival may be over, but I look forward to hearing Rachmaninoff again and again and again in the years to come, perhaps some of them with Mr. Trifonov once more at the piano.
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Review: Rachmaninoff Festival I, New York Philharmonic feat. Daniil Trifonov

Tuesday, November 17 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Cristian Măcelaru, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano

Rachmaninoff, The Isle of the Dead (1908)
Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934)
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901)

This month the New York Philharmonic seeks answer to the question “Just how much Rachmaninoff can one tolerate”.  From the name of this blog, you may surmise that I am a big fan of Rachmaninoff.  Even so, NYPhil’s three-week Rachmaninoff Festival featuring Daniil Trifonov performing Piano Concertos 2 through 4 as well as Rhapsody in Paganini is probably a bit too much of a good thing for the mere mortal.  Now of course, any pianist who can play Rachmaninoff is no mortal, and if nothing else, the young Mr. Trifonov, on his 5th night of playing the the Rach 2/Rhapsody in Paganini double feature, has to be commended for his commitment and stamina.

The concert started with the symphonic poem Isle of the Dead, based on Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name.  That I loved Rachmaninoff long before developing general interest in classical music is in large part, I think, because I sensed a tortured soul overshadowed by the composer’s lyrical virtuosity.  Isle of the Dead, however, seems to be an exercise in just the tortured soul part, and honestly nearly 20 minutes of deathly allusions and heavy, heavy strings were 12 minutes too many.

I’m about as familiar with Rach 2 and Rhapsody in Paganini as I am with any piece of music, or at least with a particular recording thereof featuring Nikolai Lugansky, my favorite pianist.  When one is so intimately familiar with a recording, every note played slightly differently is jarring.  When Mr. Lugansky had performed Rhapsody in Paganini with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande earlier this year in Newark, a reviewer had remarked that “against the clarity and bright sonority of the orchestra, Lugansky resurrected this work from the depths of familiarity.”  I’d say that Trifonov and the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Cristian Măcelaru did kind of the opposite: they made Rachmaninoff nearly unrecognizable.  Well, to me anyway.  Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing–I heard details tonight that had escaped me in the hundreds of times before and gained new interpretations that had never occurred to me.  It dawned on me that the two pieces, which I had always taken to be very different, are in fact very similar: a turbulent intro, an ultra romantic (and Romantic) middle section, and a hard-fought salvation.  Not unlike the Divine Comedy.

The performance-specific comments I have, then, are mostly the comments I have about every New York Philharmonic performance: the orchestra was too loud, the brass winds too horrible.  Based on the Youtube videos that I’ve seen of Trifonov as well as his Rach 1 with the NYPhil earlier this year, his performances tend to be very dependent on the quality of the orchestra.  This was especially apparent in the rhapsody, where the principal trombone started jarringly off-pitch, and the soloist’s playing in the first couple of arrangements were quite timid as result.  (For his first encore later in the evening, Trifonov would play a piano arrangement of the Paganini caprice, as if to compensate for the orchestra’s mistake.)  Beyond that, I tend to judge one’s Rachmaninoff chops by how one plays the 18th variation of the rhapsody (like how I judge a Thai restaurant by its pad thai–you could argue that there are meatier selections than such a saccharine sample, but whatever, it’s comfort food), and Trifonov’s 18th variation was soporific.  What I really admire about Nikolai Lugansky and Yujia Wang, two of the best Rachmaninoff interpreters of our time,  other than their impeccable techniques, is that they seem to play somewhat aloofly, and it is precisely this touch of aloofness that exudes emotions.  Trifonov, once again, does the opposite: he plays passionately and kinetically, yet very little of the passion and physicality converted into emotional impact.  If that makes sense.

The Rach 2 went better, thanks in large part to the orchestra’s excellent strings and woodwinds.  I had never realized it before, but for what is probably the best-known pianistic work of the 20th century, most of the melody in the first two movements are actually given to the orchestra.  After some initial disagreement in tempo and intensity between the piano and the orchestra in the first movement, the orchestra settled down nicely in second movement to provide a lush, gentle background for the piano, as if giving back slightly to the soloist.  By the final movement, Trifonov was in charge and putting on a show, striking the piano with perfect accuracy and vigor aplomb.  Not even a moment after the final note, the audience exploded into a standing ovation, and the soloist came back on stage no less than 8 times, a record among concerts I’ve attended (the previous record was 6, held by Yujia Wang after Rach 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra; the reception for Trifonov is all the more remarkable considering that he was fully clothed).  Hey, everyone, calm down, let’s not wear out our young soloist in one night–he’ll be here all month.
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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.