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.

Review: Romeo and Juliet, American Ballet Theater

Thursday, June 23 2016
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

American Ballet Theater
Ormsby Wilkins, conductor

Alessandra Ferri, Juliet
Herman Cornejo, Romeo
Craig Salstein, Mercutio

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan

During this transformative week in which humanity edged two steps closer to doomsday, namely my hometown of Cleveland winning a sports championship and Britain voting to leave the EU, alas there is still music.  Ballet season, to be exact.  I’m not nominally a fan as I find any art form with a visual element in addition to the auditory to be overwhelming, but it’s been nearly a year and a half since my last token ballet concert, and I’m on Prokofiev streak, and 53 year old Alessandra Ferri is coming out of retirement to make this performance the event of the season (or so I was told), and what else have I gotten to do now that Carnegie Hall’s season is over?  So when inexpensive tickets became available in the morning, I snatched one without giving its affordability a second thought.  Then I proceeded to spend most of the work day at a standing desk–while gleefully extolling the virtue of standing to colleagues–in anticipation of sitting all evening.  See where I’m going with this?  Yep, the ticket turned out to be for standing room only.  And not even the nice kind like my two opera experiences from earlier this year, where I could comfortably hunch over the last row of seats.  Instead I was in the second of three standing rows, each row jam packed with allotted spaces of no more than a foot wide apiece.  If I hunched over the standing, umm, rack(?) I wouldn’t be able to see, and if I tried to fidget to take some weight off my feet I’d bump into the people next to me.

Upon realizing this predicament, I planned on leaving after the first act, especially since the only part of the ballet score that has ever really made an impression on me is the iconic “Dance of the Knights”, which is in the middle of the first act.  In reality “Dance of the Knights” was somewhat disappointing, as though the full stage of dancers constituted a visual spectacle, the choreography itself was understated and ran counter to the strong rhythmic nature of the music (I would have put in a sword fight there).  However, the sight of a 50-something woman doing pirouettes on her toes was truly inspirational, in the sense that I was inspired to deal with standing on two feet for the duration of the ballet.  Speaking of which, Ms. Ferri really was a sight to behold.  Though the choreography was subtly simplified, her carriage and presence were divine.  Those pointed toes!  If only Romeo could have clued in to the fact that the dead don’t point their toes.  Hollywood actresses should take note of her opening scene as Juliette, in which she exuded the kind of lightness and joy that only the young and innocent could.  How a 53 year old woman credibly plays the pre-Romeo Juliet is probably more astonishing to me than the sensuous dancing she later performs with her beau.

The supporting cast was all very solid as well, especially Mercutio, though I was told that Mr. Salstein’s posture is starting to suffer from his age.  Overall, I see now why Romeo and Juliet is a balletic classic but rarely played by standalone orchestras.  Its essence lies in the dance and the acting, with the music–seemingly undanceable in and of itself–serving a role more akin to film (or perhaps theater) score than functional music on its own.  For most in the audience, it was a special evening.  Not being an expert on the subject, some of that was lost on me, but certainly it’s still nice to branch out once in a while.
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Review: Joshua Bell and Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

Monday, March 21 2016
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Joshua Bell, violin and leader

Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1 “Classical” (1917)
Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto (1878)
Beethoven, Symphony No. 8 (1812)

These days I’m short on cash and even shorter on time, which actually inspired me to attend this concert tonight.  Somehow, splurging $60 that I do not have and two hours that I cannot spare go a long way toward convincing myself that I’m not as poor or busy as one would otherwise believe.  Actually it’s kind of fitting to hear Joshua Bell playing Tchaikovsky on the heels of my DC trip, since the last time I was in DC was to accompany a friend who idolizes Bell for a concert where Bell played the same concerto.  It’s no mystery why he plays this piece so often–between the visceral virtuosity the piece demands and the garish passion built into the score, Tchaikovsky might as well have written his violin concerto for Mr. Bell.  To the soloist’s credit, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, whatever it is.  The dazzling first-movement cadenza went so well that the audience burst into a standing ovation at its final note, significantly delaying the start of the second movement.  This may have ironically deflated some of the orchestra’s energy, as their playing was palpably more constrained in the second and third movements, but that’s immaterial, as the piece is thoroughly a vehicle to showcase the violinist.  Mr. Bell more than rose to the occasion, projecting tones at times warm and lilting but mostly throaty and tempestuous, all the while maintaining impeccable technical control despite sawing away on his $4 million Strad with so much gusto that one can only wonder how expensive the instrument must be to insure.  Nuance was neither demanded nor supplied, and that’s just as well.

For the symphonic portions of the program, it was quite odd to see Joshua Bell playing sitting down and as part of an orchestra.  Mr. Bell isn’t the first violinist I’ve seen attempting to conduct a Beethoven symphony; Itzhak Perlman conducted Beethoven’s Second with the Philadelphia Orchestra several years ago.  Whereas Perlman conducted from the conductor’s podium, Mr. Bell double-dutied as first violin, gently waving his bow to cue the wind sections when not playing himself.  This is no easy feat, as Beethoven’s symphonies require considerably more coordination than those of Mozart, which is typically where this sort of experiment takes place.  Just as Beethoven’s pastoral Sixth was co-composed with the iconic Fifth, the witty Eighth was co-composed with the life-affirming Seventh.  I had listened to a few different versions of the Eighth on YouTube earlier in the day and found it to be the most Classical (and operatic) of the Beethoven symphonies, full of the kind of humor and joy that permeates much of Haydn’s work.  Mr. Bell and this orchestra, however, played the Eighth as if it were the Ninth–loud, intense, dramatic, thereby losing all of the Eighth’s subtle delights.

As for the opening Prokofiev, it’s not the most comfortable piece for me to listen to.  Though the Baroque-sized orchestra played under a Classical paradigm (the first and last movements follow the familiar sonata form and the third movement is even a gavotte), one can’t help but sense that this is still a 20th century piece with questionable tonality in 18th century clothing.  It’d be easier to listen to an outwardly dissonant piece, quite frankly, though nothing too sinister stood out to me either, so perhaps I’ll revisit the piece at some point and see if I can say anything more constructive about it then.
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Review: Borodin and Prokofiev, Russian National Orchestra feat. Stefan Jackiw

Wednesday, March 2 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Russian National Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev, conductor
Stefan Jackiw, violin

Borodin, In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880)
Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 2 (1935)

I have a confession to make.

Today, for the first time, I left a concert early.

To be clear, this was planned.  There’s too much on my plate this week, and I had been feeling particularly mentally and physically worn out today.  It was either leaving during the intermission or not going at all, as I simply couldn’t fathom staying for Stravinsky’s Firebird in the second half, which I’d be wary of even on a good day.  Plus, I only paid $10 for the ticket.

Still, I feel terribly guilty.  It’s a vulgar thing to do, like leaving a baseball game early.

In any case, not to defend myself, but the Russian National Orchestra didn’t make much of a case for me to stay.  The program that it brought to Carnegie Hall is intriguing, even without the Stravinsky.  When I think of Russia’s classical music tradition, the first notes that come to mind are the lush, over the top Romantic melodies of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.  Instead tonight’s program featured pieces plucked from the more introspective side of the Russian canon, which, at least on YouTube, was refreshing.  The Borodin piece, for instance, is hauntingly melancholic, not bad for a chemist who only moonlighted as composer.  The orchestra, while seemingly perfectly adequate in its constituent parts, played listlessly.  The piece, to me, invokes images of the barren vastness of Central Asia.  Not in the romantic sense, no, but imposing and formidable nevertheless.  The orchestra gave possibly the most underwhelming performance imaginable of this gorgeous melody.  Notes that I imagine were scored as legato were inexplicably played staccato, like a synthesized version of human speech.  I even wondered if it’s my Americanized aesthetics that’s in the wrong, that I have come to expect overly indulgent interpretations.  It’s plausible, I suppose, but I’ve been to Central Asia, and what I heard tonight wasn’t any interpretation of Central Asia.

If I had to guess, I’d venture that the nearly sold out audience was primarily there for the soloist, Stefan Jackiw.  As fervent readers of this blog (i.e. myself) must have noticed, most of the concerts I go to feature piano concertos.  By contrast, violinists are not a species that I’m very familiar with.  Gauging by the audience response, he was good.  Just kidding, though he was indeed very solid and the audience was very enthusiastic.  Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin Concerto is, if not anachronistic, is at least an anomaly for the composer’s otherwise balletic style.  In fact it is almost what a Classical piano concerto re-imagined for the nihilist 20th century violin would sound like, if that makes sense.  There is a quiet soloist opening like Beethoven’s 4th, a gentle but dark middle movement like Mozart’s 23rd, and a rondo finale like your standard Classical fare but that’s just a tad unsettling for reasons unclear after the initial listening.  In the program notes, the soloist himself noted that the “duality of delicate, sometimes seductive, tenderness and dark, theatrical, menace is everywhere in this violin concerto”.  I’m not quite sure that I agree, or even that his performance fully explored his own interpretation.  (Granted, he’s the one performing this piece in Carnegie Hall and I, well, am not.)  But there is something to be said about the pureness of the sound that he’s able to make with his instrument.  Normally I would rate the soloist in terms of overwhelming or being overwhelmed by the orchestra, but in this case that wasn’t even a factor, nor was his interpretative choices or even the lack thereof.  I was transfixed by the sultry tones of his violin.  It was a much-needed reprise from what had occupied me for the whole day, that is, list comprehensions and the prospect of President Trump.

Review: Orchestral Showpieces, Budapest Festival Orchestra

Thursday, February 18 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer, conductor
Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Weber, Overture to Der Freischütz (1821)
Liszt, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1849)
Prokofiev, Symphony No. 5 (1944)

Time is short and hotspot is weak, so I will get to the point.  Hectic as yesterday was, I asked myself if I really wanted to attend Budapest Festival Orchestra’s performances at Carnegie Hall, and while I did end up going, the orchestra left more questions than it answered.  For instance, why were the double basses stationed all the way at the back, behind the winds?  Who is Weber and why haven’t I listened to his music before?  Is Liszt underrated or overrated?  Is this the lowest-energy performance of Prokofiev ever?  Most importantly, can the brass winds hold mandatory master class for American orchestras?

Weber was, according to the program notes, a seminal member of the German Romanticism school.  But since his last name does not begin with B, I can be forgiven for overlooking him.  I should correct this oversight right away though, since the Der Freischütz overture is a truly exquisite piece, at once familiar and refreshing.  Is it traditional for the horns to make a point of standing up for their solos and then walking across the stage to their seats during the performance?  It was awfully distracting, but the horns’ theme was gorgeous and evocative, both the music itself and the playing thereof.  Overall the piece is more folksy than your standard Germanic repertoire, but I would also never have guessed that it’s an operatic overture.  In any case I’m grateful for the introduction to this composer.

It is probably a Hungarian law that no Hungarian orchestra can go on tour without playing at least one piece by Liszt, even if the composer of Hungarian rhapsodies was himself decidedly more Austro than Hungarian.  Though nominally one of my favorite pianistic composers, I’d never given Liszt’s orchestral pieces a chance, projecting rather unfairly that they must be flamboyant showcases for the soloist and nothing more.  After all, the last time I attended a performance of this particular concerto, the soloist was Lang Lang in a leather tux, and I pretty much zoned out after the 7-note opening motif.  This time my attention paid off, as I found the piece surprisingly (though why should it be?) complex and balanced.  There certainly were long stretches of virtuosic cadenzas for the pianist, but the orchestra played more than a mere supporting role.  In particular, the second movement is a masterpiece in polyphony, with different sections of the orchestra entering at different measures in an intricate pattern, which Mr. Fischer deserves much credit for overseeing.  Organizationally the concerto is like a cerebral puzzle, with the 7-note opening motif returning in different guises as a guide, and the musical palette created is, perhaps rhetorically, much more complex than Liszt’s usual solo piano fare.  My one complaint is that the soloist Mr. Hamelin overplayed his part, at times taking so much liberty with rhythm and touch that the piece was brought to nearly a halt, sucking any energy out of the stage.  Liszt, if nothing else, was famous for his theatrics, and it’s almost as if Mr. Hamelin, in striving for the same, achieved precisely the opposite.

As far as 20th century symphonies go, Prokofiev’s Fifth is among those that I’m most familiar with, especially the stealthily (?) energetic second movement, thanks to it being on my playlist during the five days that I once spent walking across western Spain.  Widely perceived as an emphatic salute to the Allies’ impending victory in WWII, it has often been unfairly compared to the much more ambiguous fifth symphony of Shostokavich.  Between the soaring, almost Romantic melodies of the first movement and the march-like beats of the second and fourth movements, Prokofiev’s Fifth is an unapologetic war song written to rally a crowd.  This performance, however, was very conservative.  For such a large orchestra–probably the largest that I’ve seen at Carnegie Hall this season–and a piece designed to bring down the house, the performance lacked tautness and, again, theatrics (Mr. Fischer’s dance-like conducting during the second movement notwithstanding).  It is a shame, really, because the wind players really played their heart out.  The principal clarinet aced every note, and the brass section is superior to that of any American orchestra.  Even if as a whole the performance did not come together, their effort alone was worth the price of admission (though admittedly, it helped that I was able to purchase an inexpensive rush ticket).

European orchestras have a flare for dramatic encores in New York, and this one takes the cake.  After three rounds of applauses, the conductor reassumed his position on stage and the musicians put down their instruments and instead each picked up a sheet of paper.  Turns out, they were going to sing a 5th-century liturgy as part of a public outreach to encourage everyone of every talent level to sing.  The solemn tone of the piece itself was in stark contrast to the humorous occasion, but well done Mr. Fischer, the orchestra sang better than it played.
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