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.

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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: Rach 1 and Mahler’s 10th, Philadelphia Orchestra feat. Lang Lang

Wednesday, May 11 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Lang Lang, piano

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1891)
Mahler, Symphony No. 10 (1910, Deryck Cooke 1976 ed.)

For as much as certain NYT critics love to dismiss the Philadelphia Orchestra for conservative programming, it is worth remembering that not all pieces by well-known composers are necessarily accessible.  Case in point: tonight’s concert, the season’s final appearance of my most beloved ensemble at Carnegie Hall, featuring two of the most recognizable composers at their least recognizable junctures.

Rachmaninoff composed his first concerto when he was just 17 years old, and it is said that he had modeled the piece after Grieg’s invigorating piano concerto.  Then he would revise it after finishing his much better known second and third concertos.  You can indeed hear the progression of his style in the music: the first movement, a youthful call to arms of sorts, is reminiscent of the first movement of Grieg’s concerto, the second movement, a quieter introspection, is similar thematically to the second movement of Rach 2, and the percussive finale derives most of its emotions from rhythm instead of melody, much like the finale of Rach 3.  Maybe because the composer was so young when he first worked on the piece, or maybe it’s because he had gone back to revise it decades later, while the First exhibits nearly all elements of Rachmaninoff’s sumptuous lyricism, it lacks the  narrative and cohesiveness of his better known works.  Theoretically, this presents an interesting interpretive opportunity for the soloist.  Though nominally rarely performed, I last attended a performance of Rach 1 in early 2015 with Daniil Trifonov as the soloist and remarked at the time that the 23 year old pianist had impressed with precocious control and youthful abandonment in equal measures.

Lang Lang, on the other hand, is virtuosic and frustrating in equal measures.  Truth be told, if it hadn’t been the Philadelphia Orchestra, I probably wouldn’t have attended the concert because Lang Lang is not good enough of a pianist for me to withstand his stage antics.  On this night, his calisthenics weren’t as exaggerated as the last time I saw him (quite a few years ago, playing Liszt), save for an inexplicable airplane arms pose at the end of cadenzas, though from where I was sitting I was treated to a prime display of his facial contortions.  Look, it’s hard to separate Lang Lang the pianist from Lang Lang the brand, but if we were to be fair, we should acknowledge that Rach 1 is a good choice for him.  As the piece itself has some structural issues, the artist’s gaudy showmanship highlighted the piece’s technical prowess without reminding the audience of its lack of finer nuances and inner consistency, and really that’s a favor the piece returns for the artist in question as well.  I would have preferred the first and last movements to be played more crisply, but certainly things could have been worse–this could have been Lang Lang playing Rach 3, or he could have had to take the stage without the support of Rachamninoff’s favorite orchestra, which, by the way, was game as ever.

Shortly after Yannick returned to the stand for the second half of the program, there were two curious observations of note.  One, many in the audience had left–because they were only there for the pianist, or because they were purists who couldn’t imagine sitting through a re-imagined Mahler?  And two, Yannick appeared much more demure than usual.  As a seating shuffle (despite all the empty seats!) delayed the start of the symphony, instead of sitting down on the conductor’s podium and watching in pretend amusement as he has done multiple times in the past, Yannick remained solemn if a little impatient.  He was about to conduct Mahler’s Tenth after all, drafted as the composer became aware of his wife’s cheating while his own health was failing.  Mahler died before completing the work and only orchestrated the first movement, and the version performed by the orchestra tonight was completed by musicologist Deryck Cooke in the 1970s.  Finishing the work of a titan always presents an uncomfortable conundrum: if the end result is plausible, it will probably be criticized for being artificially so.  Cooke’s version of Mahler’s Tenth certainly sounds Mahlerian, with its overarching struggle interspersed with almost childlike scherzos.  It reminds me of Mahler’s First in structure and seamless integration of life and death motifs.  But whereas Mahler’s First is full of delights and ultimately hopeful, his last symphony is downright chilling, as if the mental state of someone slipping in and out of lucidity.  Indisputably the composer’s most dissonant symphony, some believe that Mahler would have gone over completely to the dark, I mean, atonal side had he lived.  Personally I think the causality is the other way around: Mahler knew his life was nearing its end and thus saved the most dissonant for last.  Whichever way you slice it, this is a difficult piece, and being so early in the week, the orchestra was a bit off–understandably, if still somewhat uncharacteristically.  The strings were first rate as always, but the winds were a little messy.  It didn’t seem to matter, at least not to Yannick, who seemed completely spent but content at the finish.  I’ve seen the man play an hour of chamber music after conducting a full concert, I’ve seen him ripping his tux after an extremely physical 2.5 hours on the podium, and I’ve seen him conduct Mahler’s Second.  But this is the first time that I’ve seen him leave everything on the stage with nothing left.  I’ve said this before and I will say it again: critics be damned, I love this man and this band.  May we all grow together for many more years to come.
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Review: Haydn and Bruckner, Philadelphia Orchestra

Tuesday, January 26 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor

Haydn, Symphony No. 103, “Drumroll” (1795)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 4, “Romantic” (1880)

I woke up this morning, groggy and already looking forward to sleep again.  Getting over a nagging jet lag while adjusting to a new routine is the price we pay for the Best Vacation Ever, in case my credit card bill isn’t enough.  Between that and the ankle-deep puddle of slush at every street corner courtesy of last weekend’s snowstorm, I thought an unthinkable thought: maybe I should skip tonight’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert.

But then I started listening to the Haydn symphony on the program and, by the second movement, decided that sleep will have to wait.  So I drank more coffee than was good for me and ironically needed the music to calm down.  Not that the two symphonies performed by the orchestra were calming, per se, but rather that they created a medium into which I could channel my jitteriness.  In any case, the things we do for those we love!

Haydn and Bruckner nearly bookend the Austro-German canon:  Haydn, preceded only by Bach, and Bruckner, succeeded only by Mahler.  It is perhaps for this reason that I usually consider them to be at the fringe of my comfort zone.  Besides, Haydn wrote like over 100 symphonies.  Over 100!  I’m guessing that he had time to do that because he never binge watched House of Cards, but still there is probably such a thing as the Conservation of Total Symphonic Quality–the total quality of a composer’s symphonic compositions is constant, and since Haydn wrote nearly 12 times the number of symphonies as Beethoven, it follows that the average Haydn symphony should be only approximately 1/12 as good as the average Beethoven symphony.  Right?

While I can’t speak for his other 103 symphonies (can anyone?), the “Drumroll” was very pleasant.  A masterpiece of mischief, I’d even say.  The first movement is uncharacteristically mysterious, with the curious opening timpani roll that literally begins before the audience is ready and an ominous bass-line theme that recurs throughout.  The playful folksy theme introduced in the second movement is one of those alluring melodies–like the theme of Bolero–that one can listen to forever, and one does for what feels like the entirety of the rest of the symphony.  In fact it’s still stuck in my head.  The melody is transferred seamlessly and often ingeniously between different sections of the strings, strings and winds, soloists and orchestra–this work must be the textbook example they use in composition class.  Yannick often over-conducts (which to his credit nearly always results in positively memorable performances), but here he was faithful to the era and recognized that the score required no further emotional interjections.  Instead he simply moderated the tempo and allowed the orchestra, particularly the strings, to play at once tautly and freely.  It’s a wonder that for a piece which calls for less than a full orchestra–reduced string sections, only a handful of winds–an easy synergy seems to spring out of nowhere.  Compliment to both the composer and the performers, I’d reckon.

To have inferiority complex is to be human, but even so imagine the weight on Bruckner’s shoulders to not even be the 3rd most celebrated 19th century symphonist whose last name began with B.  Since it is impossible to discuss Bruckner without context, based on what little I have heard of his work, he seems to be the missing link between Beethoven and Bahler, I mean Mahler.  The symphonic journey from the late Classical era to the late Romantic era is in some sense a progression in the scope and palette of the brass winds, and however much the Philadelphia Orchestra is paying its principal horn Jennifer Montone, it is not enough.  Her solo notes were clear but rich, at times soaring alone to convey the passage of time, at times lurking behind the strings to serve as distant hunting calls.  The entire symphony was 65 minutes long and too grand for me to analyze structurally, and certainly the audience gave the performance a generous ovation, but personally the fourth movement felt like a messy, drawn-out afterthought to the climatic last notes of the third movement as opposed to a satisfying conclusion.  Then again, I suppose form is mostly the concern of Classicists.  Romanticists want their music to expand beyond the notes played, and like life itself, closure is not guaranteed.

Review: Sounds of Vienna, Philadelphia Orchestra feat. Jan Lisiecki

Thursday, January 14 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Jan Lisiecki, piano

J. Strauss Jr, “Tales from the Vienna Woods” Waltz, Op. 325 (1868)
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 (1806)
Beethoven, String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95 (1810, arr. Mahler)
HK Gruber, Charivari (1981)

The way most things happen in life is gradually and then suddenly.  Falling in love, for instance.  And growing old.  Having started elementary school one year early and then proceeded to spend the next 22 years in school (where peers are neatly divided along years of birth), I had always been reminded of my youth.  But at some point evidence started mounting that even I couldn’t escape aging.  High school classmates posting wedding pictures on Facebook, then baby pictures.  Coworkers who were mostly born half a decade later.  Strangers in hostels saying things like “I’m traveling the world now so that by the time I’m __, I’d be settled into a career and family”, where __ is my age (or younger).

Then, one fine winter evening, a 20 year old kid makes his Carnegie Hall debut, and suddenly it hits me that I’m now old enough, that someone who wasn’t even born at the time I stopped playing Beethoven, is now performing Beethoven as a pro.

Jan Lisiecki is, as we said, 20 years old.  He is lanky and apparently a Vogue model.  In fact he looks almost like a young blond Benedict Cumberbatch.  His demeanor is calm and unaffected, which in another few years would serve him well with Beethoven’s 4th.  For now his quietness translates more as timid rather than quietly assertive, especially with a full-bodied orchestra around him.  Unlike Beethoven’s other piano concertos, the 4th opens with a thoughtful piano solo.  (Come to think of it, other than the Rach 2, I haven’t heard another concerto–for any instrument–that gives the first note to the soloist.)  There is no effervescent first movement or an emotive second as I’d come to expect from the composer, but rather the whole piece feels like a serious dialogue between the piano and the orchestra, until some of the tension dissolves in the more typical rondo finale.  To my ear, Mr. Lisiecki hit all the right notes at the prescribed tempo, but did not quite bring out the subtle conflicts of the music.  To be fair, the 4th may be Beethoven’s least accessible piano concerto, a tall order for a 20 year old to interpret.  For encore, the soloist made the interesting choice of playing Träumerei from Schumann’s Kinderszenen.  It is not a technically difficult piece–with some practice even I can give a go at it, but playing it fluidly such that emotions flow at will is not easy.  Here one can sense Mr. Lisiecki’s immense potential.  It’s as if he created a canvas with the notes and painted something heartbreakingly beautiful on it.  When he figures out how to do that at scale with entire concertos, he will be the heir apparent to Krystian Zimerman, if he isn’t already.
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The rest of the concert is all nominally a tribute to Vienna, with the opening waltz, the closing deconstruction of waltz, and the Beethoven quartet, composed shortly after Napoleon’s invasion of Vienna (which had upset the composer greatly).  I’d say that in reality it was more like a tribute to the Philadelphia Sound–the strings played an orchestral arrangement of the quartet, after all, and they played it with such conviction that it is difficult to imagine that the piece was not originally composed for the richness of a full-bodied orchestra.  Otherwise, to be honest I was seriously jet-lagged, having made a 25 hour trip back to NYC from Oceania earlier this week, so I was kind of out of it, even with being surrounded by the sound of my beloved Philadelphia Orchestra.

Nevertheless, I absorbed and enjoyed enough of the concert to opine that our old friend Anthony Tommasini from the New York Times is once again rather provincial in his predictable critique of the concert, that “orchestras everywhere have been engaged for too long in what feels like a continuous Vienna festival.  And in these programs, Mr. Nézet-Séguin is mostly sticking to the canon, including Beethoven, Haydn and Bruckner, with just one short piece by a living composer.”  First of all, no sentence should start with a conjunction in journalistic writing.  Also, the first part of that statement is simply not true–the New York Philharmonic, for instance, seems to have been engaged for too long in what feels like a continuous Rachmaninoff festival, which I do not recall Mr. Tommasini criticizing.  Moreover, the second part of that statement is akin to saying something like “This English lit curriculum is mostly sticking to the canon, including Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens, with just one short poem by a living writer.”  Whatever is wrong with that?  The fact is that classical music, be it Strauss or Beethoven or Esa-Pekka Salonen, has been at least partially rooted–explicitly or implicitly–in Viennese tradition since before Mozart, and it will continue to be as such.  After all this time.  Always.

Review: Post-Romantic Nationalism, Philadelphia Orchestra feat. Gil Shaham

Tuesday, October 13 2015
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Gil Shaham, violin

Grieg, Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt (1888)
Bartók, Violin Concerto No. 2 (1938)

Sibelius, Symphony No. 5 (1919)

Philadelphia Orchestra’s appearances at Carnegie Hall hold prominent places on my calendar and in my heart, like Opening Day or Terence Tao’s lectures on the East Coast.  This preeminent ensemble was the one constant of the six grueling (though ultimately illuminating) years I spent in Philly for grad school, and they feel like family–just watching concertmaster David Kim tuning the orchestra makes me tear up a little.

Major orchestras don’t like to be called out as conservative at Carnegie Hall, and as such they tend to bring somewhat edgy programming.  At least one tonally nontraditional piece seems to be expected, otherwise I would have loved it if Dvořák were substituted for Bartók in this lineup of post-Romantic nationalist composers.  The opening piece, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, was incredible.  It’s a familiar piece, one I thought couldn’t really be messed up (“In the Hall of Mountain King” was played admirably as an encore by a Norwegian youth orchestra at Tivoli this past summer), but at the same time couldn’t really be elevated either.  I was wrong.  During the second, strings-only, movement, “The Death of Åse”, a hush fell over the auditorium and I couldn’t understand how a piece that I had listened to hours before on Youtube and left no impression was suddenly making my soul swell.  I wished time would slow down so that I could remember the sensation of each note, and each bow was bittersweet in its smoothness, like sand passing through an hourglass.  I knew I could listen to this piece again, maybe find another version on Youtube, but it would never be like it was tonight.

Perhaps due to his atonal tendencies, Bartók is one of those composers I simply don’t get.  Gil Shaham has an engaging stage presence, swaying and frolicking with his instrument as if dancing to a Hungarian folk tune.  Sometimes he fiddled inches away from Yannick, and sometimes he was nearly on top of the concertmaster, and neither seemed to mind.  Technically he’s superb, especially through that crazy first movement cadenza, and almost all of the string players on stage were observing the soloist intently during measures of rest, which is not always (or even often) the case.  At the end of it all, however, the piece is just not my style.  Shaham’s encore, the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3, was scintillating though in all its baroque glory.

Sibelius is one of my discoveries of 2015, thanks to, of all things, Mozart in the Jungle.  I hadn’t listened to the 5th Symphony until this afternoon, and when I did I immediately took to it and understood why, with its melodic winds and textural strings, the piece was part of the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall programming.  Compared to the other Sibelius pieces that I’ve listened to, the symphony is less bombast than I’d come to expect and more subtle with passages of melancholy, as if the composer’s youthful idealism had given away to the strain and sorrow of age.  It’s a piece that fully highlights the orchestra’s strengths, and even if overshadowed by his players, Yannick did his part to control the tempo of the piece.  This was critical especially toward the end, when Sibelius capped the swan theme finale with six isolated, powerful, mysterious chords.  As the conductor’s arms rested mid-air in between the chords, he was not wearing just his heart on his sleeves, but mine as well.  I love this orchestra so very much.
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