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: Turandot, The Metropolitan Opera

Friday, January 15 2016
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

Metropolitan Opera
Paolo Carignani, conductor

Nina Stemme, Turandot
Anita Hartig, Liù
Marco Berti, Calàf
Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Timur

Puccini, Turandot (1924, completed by F. Alfano in 1926)

What a special month this is turning out to be, what with two Puccini operas in two different hemispheres.  And I maintain, I don’t even like opera!  For starters, they are so much more expensive than instrumental concerts, and once again I could only afford a standing room ticket.  In this particular case, however, I can actually see why a ticket costs so much.  The Met’s production of Turandot is such a visual spectacle, with lavish set designs and stunning costumes–the complete opposite of La bohème–that the music itself is almost secondary.

Before attending this performance, I had thought that Turandot was the Puccini opera I was most familiar with.  But really all that means is that I had heard “Nessun dorma” like a hundred times from watching figure skating at every winter Olympics.  I had no idea that at least 2/3 of the opera is set to Chinese folk songs, most prominently “Jasmine Flower”.  The melody is seamlessly integrated into the rest of the score, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the other way around.  I wonder if Puccini was aware of the song’s original Chinese lyrics, which, having grown up in China during the last years of an era when art and culture still exuded socialist ideology, I had always taken to be a patriotic verse about the floral beauty of the motherland.  But of course the song has been around since the 18th century, and now that I re-read the lyrics, it is so appropriate for the story of Turandot (even if different libretto was used), the beautiful but aloof princess ultimately won over by love.

Between the familiar score and the elaborate visual display, it’s as if I was watching a Chinese variety show, which considering the setting of Turandot, may even be intentional.  If I have one complaint about the production, it’s that ironically the Met Orchestra was a bit too powerful for the singers.  As a standalone body of musicians, some publications would rank the Met Orchestra as among the top 20 orchestras in the world, and its sheer size and volume overwhelmed the voices of Ms. Stemme and Mr. Tsymbalyuk at times.  Mr. Berti’s Calàf was more than adequate, especially in his rendition of the “Nessun dorma”, though in the context of the opera the aria sounds much less grandiose than its stand-alone versions, and the audience’s applause for the singer awkwardly cut into the orchestra’s soaring climax (reason #153 why opera is less accessible to me as an art form).  Finally, Ms. Hartig’s Liù was the true breakout star of the performance as she breathed freshness into the age-old stereotype of the woman who self-sacrifices in the name of unrequited love.  Come to think of it, maybe *this* is the Puccini opera that had most inspired Les Mis. 
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