Reaction: Ballet and Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra

Saturday, March 7 2017
Carnegie Hall, New York NY

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

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

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

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

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

Review: 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: Russian Masterpieces, The MET Orchestra feat. Evgeny Kissin

Thursday, May 19 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

The MET Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
Evgeny Kissin, piano

Glinka, Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842)
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901)

Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique” (1893)

I am a logical person by most objective measures, but this doesn’t mean that I’m immune to the the sunk cost fallacy.  Consider Thursday.  The evening’s MET Orchestra concert–a crowd-pleasing lineup of Russian masterpieces with the legendary James Levine and megastar Evgeny Kissin–was long sold out but for same-day rush tickets, so I woke up significantly earlier than usual to line up outside Carnegie Hall.  There were about 40 people ahead of me by the time I arrived, at which point someone more levelheaded would probably recognize the hopelessness of the endeavor and head to work instead.  But I inexplicably chose to wait in line for nearly an hour.  Then later in the day I found a scalper selling a ticket for 50% more than its worth, which was already 50% more than what I’m normally willing to pay, even for a concert of this pedigree.  But because it felt like the ticket was not just for the concert but to recoup the time spent in pursuit of a ticket, I caved in.  So there you have it, the story of why I will be eating oatmeal for the rest of the month.

Anyhow, the concert was worth every penny.  I’ve actually never heard Kissin or Levine in person before.  This was to be Kissin’s last North American concert for several years, and with Levine’s deteriorating health–he conducted from a wheelchair and was very clearly restricted by physical ailments–any appearance is a momentous occasion.  Their version of Rach 2 brought nothing revolutionary to the stage, but in a good way, because how many times can you reinvent the wheel anyway?  I’ve written at length about different modes of Rachmaninoff players, and Kissin combines the best traits of them all.  Neither ostentatious nor aloof, his play is highly refined but also warm, sensitive, and personal, textbook without being formulaic, emotional without being indulgent.  The MET Orchestra’s wind sections, seasoned as they are playing the operatic repertoire, provided the perfect foil.  If I have anything to nitpick, it’s that the strings were a bit too heavy for both the concerto and the always-exhilarating Ruslan and Lyudmila overture that opened the evening.  The weight of the strings made Rach 2 more dramatic than my usual liking, but on the other hand, I had long thought Rach 2 to be a lightweight–albeit a gorgeous one–to Rach 3, and Kissin and this excellent orchestra brought out such detail and nuance in a piece whose obvious appeal is in the broad strokes that I may have to re-examine this conviction.  If anyone in the audience were listening to Rach 2 for the first time…well, let’s just say that I envy them.

Speaking of first times, this was the first time that I had seriously listened to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, and I was blown away viscerally.  At the same time, I don’t quite know what to make of it cognitively.  The program notes classified this as Tchaikovsky’s darkest piece, and some have even speculated it to be the composer’s suicide note, as Tchaikovsky died suddenly only nine days after its premier.  Personally I found the melodies of the first two movements to be reminiscent of the Nutcracker–which the composer had worked on not long before–if more suggestive and reliant on the lower registers (playing to the strength of the heavy strings).  These two movements even sound balletic, as in I was literally imagining ballet dancers dancing to the music.  I’m not sure if that’s intrinsic to the score or just the way the orchestra presented it, or perhaps it’s even my own projection, considering that this ensemble usually plays a supporting role to productions with essential visual components.  Another observation–again, I may be projecting here–is that the orchestra, technically capable as it is, seemed to not finish off themes and transitioned somewhat awkwardly, which makes sense given that operatic audiences usually start clapping at the final notes of arias.

After two melodically familiar movements, the third movement was such an joyous, bombast affair that I couldn’t glean even an ounce of the symphony’s namesake.  The audience erupted into applause at the end of the triumphant march, even if at least some of them should be aware that the symphony was not over yet.  Perhaps this was Tchaikovsky’s pathology, to set up the audience for the devastating conclusion.  Mr. Levine, too, took an extra long pause before the final movement, ostensibly to adjust to his wheelchair, but I wonder if it weren’t also to create maximal distance between the third and fourth movements.  The final movement was downright chilling, from the dissonant first note to the last words given to the lower strings.  Do themes from the beginning movements return in different forms?  I couldn’t tell.  Under less seasoned batons, I imagine one might blame the composer for writing the movements out of order, but on this evening, even if I couldn’t connect the final movement musically to the rest of the piece, emotionally it made sense.  I don’t want to say that the final movement was an elegy, but it certainly felt like farewell of sorts, portended by the first two movements and whose contrast with the third movement is the emotional anchor of the symphony.  The program of this concert was set at least 18 months in advance, before Mr. Levine’s health forced him to resign from Music Director of the institution, but one wonders if Mr. Levine had suspected what was to come, or if this has been another case of life imitating art (imitating life, perhaps?).  Over the past months many have criticized Mr. Levine for not quitting on a high, but personally I respect those who embrace the pathos of an uncomfortable conclusion if they feel that to be the more organic end.
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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: Maurizio Pollini with the New York Philharmonic

Friday, October 16 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Maurizio Pollini, piano

Berlioz, Le corsaire Overture (1844)
Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy (1880)
Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1830)

Even for New York City, this week is quite special in its classical music offerings.  On the heels of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit to Carnegie Hall, tonight a piano legend returns to the New York Philharmonic for the first time in 20 years with the concerto that launched his career: Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin’s 1st, a can’t-miss event for which I broke my concert budget and was so excited about all week.

So imagine my panic when the 1 train I was on stopped for nearly 10 minutes between 34th and 42nd, threatening to make me late.  I tried to relax by reminding myself that it wouldn’t be a huge loss if I missed the opening Berlioz overture.  Chopin’s legacy–partially French as it is–aside, the French canon doesn’t do much for me.  The notes are nice individually, but the whole usually feels less than the sum of the parts; I can’t quite pinpoint why.  Le corsaire Overture, the inspiration of which was either James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover or Lord Byron’s poem The Corsaire (either way, a writer of the Anglosphere, how un-French), is an especially poor match for the New York Philharmonic due to the piece’s brass highlights and the orchestra’s one-note, loud-for-loud’s-sake, brass section.

But, that’s OK, I’m certain nobody bought a ticket to the concert just to hear the orchestra play Berlioz.  Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, while quite possibly the most over the top Romantic piece I have ever heard, ingeniously retells the story of the star-crossed lovers in less than 20 minutes, something that takes Prokofiev two and a half hours and with ballet dancers.  In Tchaikovsky’s version, the piece starts with the dignified but foreboding friar’s theme, which gives away gradually to the agitated warring between the Capulets and the Montagues.  The action slows with the love theme, played separately by the English horn (Romeo) and the flute (Juliet).  After more battles, the love theme returns, this time loudly and with the English horn and flute intertwined, signaling that the lovers have consummated their marriage.  Consummation of love is of course punishable by death, which is promptly marked with two cymbal crashes.  A final battle ensues, followed by a sweet homage by the woodwinds to their fallen comrades.  I can’t say that the Philharmonic added anything to either my interpretation or enjoyment of the piece, but it was a solid performance.

After the intermission we arrive at the main event: Pollini playing Chopin.  Chopin’s 1st piano concerto is expressive, nuanced, equal parts strength and vulnerability, joy and melancholy, and far far beyond the composer’s 20 years at the time of its premier.  It’s also an exception among my favorite piano concertos in that it is the only piece in which I can discern no structure, by which I mean that for as many times as I’ve listened to the piece (weekly if not daily), if you played me an excerpt, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you which movement it is from.  All of the themes seem to blend together into something so blissfully that it shuts down my analytic functions completely.  My favorite recording is the one by Krystian Zimerman with the Polish Festival Orchestra, which explores every nuance of the music and enhances whichever sensitive mood I might be in, furthering a tendency of indulging in sadness as a means to perceive beauty.

Maurizio Pollini is one of the most lauded Chopin interpreters of all time, and he had played this concerto on his way to winning the 1960 Chopin Competition.  Most world-famous musicians, as technically fluid as they must be, also–by and for design of their fame–cultivate a somewhat flashy brand in personality or demeanor.  Pollini is the complete opposite.  His upper body exhibits minimal movement, and his playing is crisp and unembellished.  In the age of Lang Lang and Khatia Buniatishvili, this is refreshing.  On the other hand, I really feel that Chopin’s 1st is a piece that allows for some indulgence, and Pollini’s detached style, combined with a few missed notes, did not do it full justice.  (The sacrilege!)  Compared to the Zimmerman version, Pollini’s performance, though probably temporally perfect, lacked warmth and emotion, and the piano floated above the orchestra instead of within it.  This hardly mattered to the audience though.  After the pianist played his last note, the orchestra still had a few seconds left, but the audience was already clapping.  A standing ovation for maestro lasted a full five minutes, and the New York crowd only reluctantly dispersed when it was clear that he was not going to give an encore.  After all, one can always nitpick, but Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin is still darn close to as good as music gets.
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