Review: Chopin’s First on Inauguration Eve, Philadelphia Orchestra

Thursday, January 19 2017
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Louis Lortie, piano

Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1830)
Stravinsky, Petrushka (1947 version)

It’s been nearly five months since my last blog on the subject of music, five months since the last time I attended a concert in New York City.  I did catch a performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto while on vacation in Bergen (Norway) in early September, as well as a spectacle of Beethoven’s Ninth while traveling in Kyoto (Japan) over the holidays.  I didn’t blog about them here, partially because the fjords and the temples felt more exciting than Elgar and Beethoven, and partially because even on vacation I was preoccupied, first with baseball as summer turned to fall and then with the election’s aftermath as fall turned to winter–the same preoccupations, really, that kept me from Carnegie Hall all season long.  I wasn’t going to blog about the concert in Philly either–I was in town for a dentist appointment and decided to stay for some Chopin–but the experience just needed to be shared here and now.

Mostly, I have to share what happened before the regularly scheduled programming.  As the musicians took their seats, we realized there was no piano on stage.  (That, and it was a full orchestra with a tuba.)  But the Chopin concerto!  Was the pianist sick?  Don’t tell me I stayed in town for nothing.  Then Yannick walked onto the stage and assured the audience that the piano concerto was still on, but first the orchestra had prepared a surprise.  They were going to perform a piece of music composed during WWI by the female composer Lili Boulanger and finished by her sister Nadia Boulanger, who picked up the piece after Lili’s untimely death at age 25.  Nadia was herself one of the first prominent female conductors in the world.  The composition is called D’un matin de printemps (Of a spring morning). I’ve been to hundreds of classical concerts and had never seen musicians perform an unprogrammed piece except as an encore; it was perplexing, especially since Yannick made a sly but clear reference to the orchestra practicing it in the morning, so it’s not a spur of the moment addition.  It was only later that I understood this was a subtle (or not so subtle) sign of support for the Women’s March, which is a really lovely showing of solidarity.  I must listen to the music again–with stylistic connections to Debussy and Stravinsky, two composers I’m not particularly fond it, I zoned out at the time, but expect deeper a connection now that I have context.

The ensuing Chopin was also an experience that I will remember for a long time, not because the performance was great–in fact it wasn’t even good: the orchestra sounded hollow at times, messy at others, and under-rehearsed throughout; the pianist was mechanical and without nuance, covering up what I suspect to be lack of finer control with speed; all in all probably the worst I’ve ever heard from this orchestra and far below the standards of the last time that I’d heard the piece in person.  But on this evening none of that mattered.  The First Piano Concerto, like much of Chopin’s music, is melancholic but leaves one feeling invigorated instead of in despair.  Indeed, from its vulnerability comes strength, and from its wistfulness comes hope.  So apropos of the eve of the inauguration that the music, transcending the performance thereof, left me breathless and nearly in tears.

Emotionally drained and physically exhausted by the intermission, I was mentally checked out by the Petrushka, which I can’t bring myself to love even in the best of circumstances anyway.  I do think I like the original 1911 version better than the 1947 revised version performed here.  To be honest I really have no idea what the music is about, but the winds and the percussions seemed to have fun (perhaps deranged fun).  And why not, the orchestra’s woodwinds is as about as good as it gets.  Though I had pondered ditching the second half of the program, even in my listless state I don’t regret a single minute spent in this familiar concert hall.  It will always feel like home, so not getting back to my actual home until 2am is a small price to pay.

Review: Argerich and Dutoit in Montreal

Saturday, February 20 2016
Maison symphonique de Montréal, Montreal, Canada

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Martha Argerich, piano

Berlioz, Le carnaval romain Overture, Op. 9 (1844)
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1797)
Stravinsky, Petrushka (1911)
Ravel, La valse (1920)

They say that Martha Argerich technically never cancels a performance, because she never actually signs any contracts promising that she’d show up.  You know, kind of like how Canadian winters never promise to pull any punches.  So when one books a flight to Montreal in February, not only must one be prepared for the possibility of a last-minute substitute pianist, one has to accept that the weather may interfere with even the backup plan of settling for some poutine.

But, whatever other grudges I hold against life, tonight I was a lucky lucky girl.  For starters, Ms. Argerich showed up.  Nominally, the concert is a homecoming for Charles Dutoit, who led the OSM for 25 years before having some kind of fallout (and personally I do have a soft spot for the man who was chief conductor in Philadelphia during those formative years of my musical education).  The maestro got a rousing reception, but make no mistake about it, Ms. Argerich was the main draw.  That her name was barely a footnote on the promotional brochures was probably due to the orchestra management not wanting to jinx an already delicate proposition.  When she came out on stage, the audience led out an audible gasp and gave her such an enthusiastic welcome that she had to gesture the audience to stop clapping so that the music may begin.   As for the performance itself, it’s not often that I say this, but Ms. Argerich playing Beethoven is everything that one could imagine, and more.  The First is probably my favorite among Beethoven’s five piano concertos (and there is no bad one in the bunch), with a carefully crafted first movement, heartbreakingly tender second (right up there with the second movements of Mozart’s 23rd and Beethoven’s own Emperor as the Greatest Slow Movements Ever), and delightfully witty finale.  I’ve listened to many versions of the concerto by many a great pianist, but none of them has anything on Ms. Argerich, who struck that sublime balance between technique and interpretation, control and abandonment.  What’s remarkable about her, particularly during the second movement, is that she emotes exquisitely and openly without ever overplaying.  Where mere mortals come off as either aloof or undisciplined, Ms. Argerich’s playing is accessible, intimate, rousing, but also no-nonsense and never patronizing.  If there is a heaven, please let it be Martha Argerich playing Beethoven on a loop.  (But also, please let Ms. Argerich grace our presence on this earth for many more years to come.)

I didn’t make the trek to Montreal for the snow and slush, or, for that matter, the rest of the program.  Berlioz / Stravinsky / Ravel is typically a trio that I would only listen to if I were in a captive audience, which in this case I was.  But I’m happy to report that while I came for the pianist, I will leave with new-found interest in Berlioz and Ravel, and, if nothing else, slightly less fear for Stravinsky.  The Berlioz overture that opened the program was not unlike the Weber overture from my last blog post, as both featured soulful wind melodies (in this case, the oboe) and created a fully dramatic arc in limited lengths of time.  Stravinsky is one of a very few number of classical composers (the others being Debussy and Schoenberg) that I go out of my way to avoid, but tonight I actually found myself enjoying Petrushka.  I mean, Stravinsky to me is like Picasso: there are parts of his art that are almost familiar, but the realization of this familiarity itself, along with the components that are ostensibly uncanonical, is deeply provocative and even subversive.  It’s not music for relaxation, as I always feel as if I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  While I probably still won’t be adding Petrushka to my work playlist anytime soon, for the first time I felt that I was able to somewhat reconcile between the classically enjoyable parts of modern music and the expositions that promptly and purposefully deconstruct this enjoyment.  Speaking of which, I had always taken Ravel’s Valse as a straightforward waltz, but evidently it is actually a deconstruction thereof.  Upon closer listen, indeed the waltz theme takes on darker qualities as the beats go on, with the once harmonious and innocent theme gradually being consumed by shadow until it plunges into near-chaos yet eerily still maintaining the form of the waltz, which by the end was merely a skeletal vehicle.  Maestro Dutoit, 80 years young and having lost nary a spring in his steps, almost danced along, though one must wonder about the symbolism in concluding the program with this piece (and then playing Bolero, however a crowd pleaser it is, as encore).  Maybe he was seeking closure, kind of like how writers kill off main characters to prevent others from continuing their stories unauthorized.  I hope that he and everyone else found what they came looking for tonight.  I know I did.
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