Monday, August 08, 2011

Thou are 'Wall'!

It felt a bit like being in Midsummer night's dream yesterday at the Rose Theatre's performance of Don Giovanni. The Rose theatre, a nice modern opera house style theatre, with rather a cramped pit for the band, finds itself in the fifth and 6th floors of a building that houses a shopping centre on the lower floors, including a Whole Foods, which was far too tempting at the end of the show. The price of property in New York...

The staging was rather interesting (the programme does not make clear who was the producer - was it Ivan Fischer himself?). As the audience trundled in, Ivan Fischer, the conductor was already sitting on his chair, and a number of statues (the choir, wearing grey clothes and with all-over make-up) inhabited the very sparse stage, consisting of a pair of podiums (podia?) and nothing else. Occasionally the statues moved - probably a health and safety requirement, particularly on the part of the woman who was in a Lenin pose for a long time. In the course of the evening they sometimes danced, formed walls, the doors to Hades (effectively), and very effectively shuffled off anyone who died (sitting at the side of the stage, above the band, I could see all this).

The playing was great, as was the singing, generally - though I felt that Myrto Papatanasiu, as Donna Elvira, seemed to hang about a lot waiting for the next entry in her first contribution. Maybe that was how it was designed - but that moment was an intense conversation, and you would expect her to launch into her words immediately the previous person had finished speaking. Zoltan Megyesi's Don Ottavio was rather unfortunately staged - as his Donna Anna (a fine Laura Aikin) was totally distraught about her father's desk - he just stood far away from her - it was not exactly like he was comforting her, even though the words suggested this. (The surtitles were rather fun, by the way). So occasionally the production hung a bit, and there was too much standing and singing - the stage could have been busier. At the same time the production had us by the edge of our seats (thanks to the surtitles which got the most laughs, even though those were also used rather sparingly).

Leporello (Jose Fardilha) had real character, and Don Giovanni (Tassis Christoyannis) came across as a real bastard, just as he should have done. At the end the audience was delighted - and isn't that what counts?


Thursday, July 07, 2011

Ballet, ballet, ballet

Have seen about 5 ballets in the recent five weeks, including Coppelia, The Bright Stream (music by Shostakovich, a very funny tale of country folk on a Soviet collective farm in the 1930s, brilliant), a mix of modern dance pieces and two Tchaikovsky ballets (Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) - all part of the American Ballet Theatre Season at the Met Opera building. Including also Julie Kent's 25th dancing performance anniversary, and one of the last ever performances of a famous male dancers who has retired at the age of 43 - 20 or more years of lifting ballerinas above his head have taken their toll.

Yesterday's Sleeping Beauty, which I think I have seen for the first time as a ballet, had the lovely Alina Cojocaru as the lead female. She was awesome, dancing it slightly over the top, with some extremely challenging positions, often holding on to them just a smidgeon longer than would have been strictly by the book. Overall I have to say I am getting a bit sick of Tchaikovsky ballets. They probably reflect the time and society they were written in, where there were prima ballerinas who needed to show off their steps, and as for the corps de ballet, its main role was rather more of a corpse de ballet. In both Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty (and probably also the Nutcracker) their main activity seems to be standing at the side of the stage, immobile, watching the stars of the performance strut their stuff. Not really very democratic.

And then, apart from the performance, who was the Lady in the Black Hat who sat in the director's box in the second half? I had spied the box as empty at in the first half and made my way there in the interval, when I saw a shopping bag outside it, and this lady talking loudly into her phone. I asked her if the seats were free, then 'vacant' and she said no, it's my seat (there are four...). Interesting that she did not enter the box until it had gone dark, and with wearing a black hat and dark clothing, and being rigidly turned towards the stage, was almost invisible to the rest of the audience. Was she Someone Famous?


Monday, May 16, 2011

A very rare symphony concert!

Just made it into the concert of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall last night. Had left it late to leave home, found the subway was not running to Manhattan, instead I had to run to the tram (should have taken the bike after all) and then rushed across Manhattan from the tram stop, sliding into my seat in the balcony on the first applause. Luckily all these concerts have started with someone talking, so I did not miss any music. Boy, it's a long way up to the balcony, and then again a long way down to the front row (and a much longer way down to the floor of the hall). During the first half I noticed my seat neighbour fingering the balcony rail, which looks like painted cast iron, and is less than half an inch thick...not much to separate us from tipping down on the folks a long way below us. (She did not return for the second half).

The topic for this concert was the evolution of the symphony. Having rushed in at the last moment I had not picked up a programme, and often I don't like to look too much at the programming in advance, because I go for the performers rather than the programming. That way I get to hear interesting stuff. I knew it was Beethoven 5 at the end, and some Bach at the beginning, among quite a long list of pieces.

The announcement was that all pieces in the first half would be played continuously and that there should be no applause till the end of the first half. So Mr Nagano and the pianist (who I just discovered was the famous Angela Hewitt - I now hear all these people live that I used to hear on the radio) came on the stage... and the performance started with what I assumed to be Gabrieli, and turned out to be two of his Symphoniae Sacrae. Beautifully played by the brass section of the orchestra, standing in two groups opposite each other, and tossing themes backwards and forwards. It's so nice to hear brass music without having to fear that they will fall apart, have kinks and whatnot. Apart from being among perhaps the earliest pieces to include the s-word in their titles, they also served as rather nice fanfares to start the concert.

Immediately the last of their sound stopped reverberating round the hall, the audience had its solo of coughing. The CH actually gives out free cough sweets, in packets to be opened rustlingly (my seat neighbour had four and did not even cough...), but there seems little effect. Regardless, Ms Hewitt launched into the first of 3 sets of Bach Sinfonias for keyboard, a total of 10 out of the set of 15 - I actually have the sheet music, an Urtext version, here, but it's probably a bit naff to take sheet music to concerts, though people have been known to do that (haven't seen it in CH). While she was playing I was wondering whether I approved of Bach being played on a piano, but then thought that a harpsichord might not carry well in CH, and anyway, Andras Schiff does all his sublime performances on piano. It was a bit strange, hearing her play this music in front of the huge band and the immovable Kent Nagano .... Then a piece for orchestra followed, where I swear each section never played more than four notes at a stretch, with the same micro-motif appeared throughout the piece in all sections. It was fascinating how interesting this piece was, and yet not a single bit of melody. Turned out it was Webern's Symphony (op 21). It must be really hard to hold this piece together, and I wonder how it feels to play it? Emotionally I would not rush to hear it again, but intellectually it would be interesting to hear it a few more times to get more of a grip of it. This was followed by more Bach, and Stravinsky's wind symphony. Quite a rollercoaster of pieces!

Finally, well almost, we had Beethoven's fifth symphony. Yes, ok, a war horse, but well worth waiting for, and I suspect the lollipop to draw in the audience. It was a majestic performance, extremely fast, occasionally I thought the suspensions could have been held a smidgeon longer. But there were some other awesome corners (I really like extreme pianissimos, or pianissimi). Strangely I found the brass extremely bright. The instuments looked different, and later I wondered if they had used cornets rather than trumpets.

But this was not the end of the concert. As the conductor went off, some other musicians sidled onto the stage.... the first encore was something contemplative by Debussy, followed by the Le Corsaire overture. A great thrower-out, even though it might be strange to end a concert with an overture.

I've also realised that in NY no-one gets flowers at the end of a concert. My theory still stands that the poorer the country the more flowers the performers get (maybe they don't get much of a fee there). In Germany they get official flowers, in Lithuania official flowers and, often, a single tulip or whatever is in season, from audience members, in Russia I saw a lady bring in homemade bunches of flowers delivering them at all sorts of moments in the concert, like between movements (the next day I spotted her raiding rubbish bins for beer bottles), in Armenia tiny girls with bouquets larger than themselves struggle onto the stage. I suppose a bunch of flowers is an additional expense. Fair enough, what would the travelling performers do with a bunch of flowers, but it still seems a nice gesture.

NY Times reviews of the last two concerts here.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Overdose of Energy!

'tis still the 'Spring for Music' Festival season at Carnegie Hall (I would prefer to write 'at the Carnegie Hall' but was taken to task by a faithful reader who said in NY they say 'at Carnegie Hall', like 'at church', or 'at school', I suppose. Interesting, and I wonder if it is just musicians who use the latter phrasings, or everyone). (Picture courtesy of NY Times)

It was only this week that I discovered how Carnegie Hall 'works', if I understood it correctly. Apparently it is totally run like a business. Whereas in Europe, especially Germany and I suspect Eastern European countries, concert halls employ orchestras or engage them (ie pay them) to perform there, here orchestras rent the hall, and have to cover their own expenses. And they then get some of the ticket income to compensate (I suppose the other part of the ticket income goes towards the hall rental, but they still have to cover travel and accommodation). So it's not surprising that some American Orchestras, like the Portland from Oregon (established in the 19th century) and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra this week had their Carnegie Hall debut. Dallas managed to raise 250,000 towards the cost; don't know the figure for Oregon. Anyway, it's an expensive business. But on the other hand, if you, dear Reader, feel you want to have your Carnegie Hall debut, just find a kind sponsor to pay for it. I wonder if this affects the programming choices - it does, at times, seem a bit staid to me. Not only that, but also the orchestras and concert halls support the public radio when in other countries I think the radio pays for transmissions of events not of its own organising. Oh, it's a sad state of affairs.

This all reminded me of that opera company, complete with singers, chorus, orchestra, staging. from somewhere deep in the former Soviet Union, North Ossetia (Gergiev comes from South Ossetia), which trundled all the way to Edinburgh to perform in the Fringe Festival (which is more business like than the International Festival). No doubt her CV will now say that she and her band performed at the Edinburgh festival, which is, strictly speaking, true - but it was not the International Edinburgh Festival, even though both run at the same time, together with others...I think the main soprano's dad paid for it. Here's that story,...and her name is 'Viola'. I wonder if someone has told him about Carnegie Hall? She could do an evening of operatic arias...

Anyway, I digress. Last night it was the turn of the fabulous St Paul Chamber Orchestra, from St Paul, which is one of the Twin cities - the other one is Minneapolis (where the 2004 International Viola Congress took place). The tickets were relatively cheap, and the hall was about 60% full, including some of their supporters who had travelled all the way from St Paul. I hadn't heard the band before, but I had certainly heard of them. Like the Orpheus CO they play usually without a conductor, but there is very strong leadership from the first fiddler (I am in no way implying that there is no leadership in the Orpheus, dear Reader!).

As in all Spring for Music concerts, the programming was interesting. (I must admit to not caring a great deal for Andrew Previn/Tom Stoppards 'Every Good Boy Deserves Favour', on another day, which I heard on the radio, about a mental hospital in the Soviet Union; it was quite funny and all that, but is really rather dated now). Last night's concert was fun, and interesting.

First the highly energised team played Stravinsky's Concerto in D for String Orchestra - with all performers standing (obviously apart from the celli). It had some lovely viola parts, was brisk, percussive (written in 1946) and a lot of fun. This was followed by Maria Schneider's (gee, she is about 5 years younger than me, she looked about 30) Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories for soprano and chamber orchestra, with the soprano being the awesome Dawn Upshaw (sometimes it's hard to write reviews in NY when you have such stellar performers). Maria Schneider usually writes Jazz and Big Band, so this was quite a departure for her. CD de A was a Brazilian poet, and the Brazilian music shone through nicely; it was very pleasant music, reminding me a bit of the Songs of the Auvergne. The only problem was that the orchestral accompaniment was quite loud, most of the time, I was sitting effectively above the stage entrance, sort of behind Ms Upshaw's right shoulder, so it was quite difficult for me to hear her over the orchestra.

Luckily she had a second piece, with string orchestra, of Bartok's Five Hungarian Folk Songs, arranged by Richard Tognetti. I assume it may have been a piano accompaniment once? Sometimes it seemed a bit of a challenge to keep all the strings busy. But hey, this was so funky! Ms Upshaw sang in Hungarian (from memory), and she was having so much fun - as did the audience. Inevitably it was a mix of happy and sad songs - I knew some of them, whether from spending some time in a Hungarian village or from hearing them elsewhere, I don't know.

And finally Haydn's 104 symphony (one of the 12 London symphonies). A lovely, highly energetic performance, with a wonderful percussionist who was a pleasure to watch (not quite up to 'our' Povilas Giunteris, but then few percussionists have that personality). It had some lovely touches in the minuet and trio, with dynamics which might not have been written in the original score (but what do I know about the score of this piece). I was wondering if Haydn's band at Esterhazy, in that presumably cold castle, would have been so energetic.


Sunday, May 08, 2011

Hard-hitting Stuff!

This afternoon I didn't go to the Met ($$$) but to the Bruno Walter Auditorium, for a free concert. Yes, these exist in New York, if oyu know where to go, or if your friends point you to them. It was the cellist Sam Magill (of the Met Orchestra) and Beth Levin on the piano, with a mixed programme of Beethoven, Rudin (alive and well), Debussy and Vierne.

The programme, in the packed little hall (about 200 seats) started with a Beethoven sonata for cello and piano. I love Beethoven cello sonatas, and have a few recordings of them. But I nearly flew out of my chair when the piano started - it was incredibly loud! I could immediately understand why the piano lid was only about an inch open.... Somehow this performance was not what I would have expected; it did not hang together, the phrases did not flow and create tension. Maybe it was the first-piece-in-the-programme-before-a-world-premiere syndrome, but I was a bit disturbed, and worried about the rest of the concert. But perhaps the cellist was a bit disturbed by the loud, loud piano?

Andrew Rudin's cello and piano sonata was interesting. Not least because I know quite a good cellist called Alexander Rudin who used to regularly play in Vilnius - there are not enough names to go round musicians, sometimes. It was a nice, fairly conventional piece, with no unusual noises, scratching below the bridge and so on - but with quite a challenging ending, technically. Otherwise it was not at the extremes of virtuosity, I think (but am open to correction). I liked the faster movement in the middle (but then I tend to like these), and I thought this performance went better than the Beethoven.I suspect for our Mr Geringas it might not be avantgarde enough, but not everyone needs to write avantgarde music.

The last two pieces, by Debussy and Vierne, also went vastly better than the B. The Debussy was not the usual sweetish kind of stuff that people like about Debussy (La Mer)- but I know he changed his composition style as he aged. Normally I would run miles from Debussy. Vierne's Sonata for cello and piano was nice, too and beautifully played, on the cello.


Saturday, May 07, 2011

The New Brandenburgs

Tonight was the first concert of Spring for Music, a sort of mini festival in the Carnegie Hall, of, let's say, adventurous planning, with matching cheap ticket prices. I'm not sure how often I can afford to sit in the third row of the 'parteris' as we say in Lithuania. Actually those seats are a little low, and you get a good view of the orchestra's shoes.

Never mind. As a loyal follower of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra I bought my ticket and was there, at least in the first half. Then I had had quite enough of contemporary music (not that I am usually averse to it), and got home, thanks to the new bike, in time to hear the second half on the radio. So I don't need to feel totally guilty.

The hall was quite well sold. I now get the sinking feeling when I go into the hall and see a PA system. But luckily Americans are not too prone to liking to hear themselves talk (at least sometimes), and so the speeches were short, and one of them amusing, at least. This one was by what looked like an elderly actor, who, I am told, was none other than Frasier's younger brother Niles, in a previous life! I should have been gobsmacked!

The concert was of six concertos commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in memory of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos. So what these concertos had in common with the original Brandenburgs was the instrumentation, more or less, the number of movements, more or less, the length of the concertos (more rather than less), and the occasional, very occasional, quote of Bach. The order of the concertos, using the instrumentation as an indicator, was different from that of the original Brandenburgs. And frankly, Nardo, could you not have told me that the second half was more exciting than the first half?

The first concerto, a la 6th, with no violins and viola soloists, by Aaron Jay Kerns was, frankly, rather soporific, and so I rested my eyes. But as usual in this case, I caught every note. Nice viola playing, for three violas mostly - the fourth one joined in occasionally. Reminds me of the Mozart concerto for three pianos, where the third part is rather less engaged. Nice viola playing, very nice! It was a kind of dialogic piece, with a bit of melody or whatever played by the violas, and chucked over to the cellos, who replied.

The second piece, inspired by No 4, was for two flutes and a violin. Hate to say that, but the flutes had difficulties cutting through. Perhaps it where I was sitting, and the flutes hiding behind their music stands. It was quite a nice piece, though, with some awesome violin playing, and it did contain a couple of Bach quotes.

The third piece, for flute, violin and piano, was Maxwell Davies' (him of Orkney) Sea Orpheus - oh, the link to the orchestra, the sea surrounding his living place.....It was for piano, violin and flute, a la No 5. The pianist, Christopher Taylor did his best to be the conductor, giving entries to all and sundry, including the other two soloists with their backs to him. It was quite nice, not sure about how sea-y it was. Also in the usual Bach format, in terms of movements, though the piano had a bigger solo in the first movement than in the second, unlike, I think, but don't quote me on it, the Bach 5th.

Then I left, was quite contemporary musicked-out. Got home, and found myself still in the interval (it was being broadcast 'live', with a half-hour delay), and heard the last three concertos - which were much exciting, as evidenced also by the cheers from the audience. Christopher Theofanidis' piece 'Muse' was rather Philip Glass-y, and sounded exciting. Stephen Haartke's 'A Brandenburg Autumn was apparently inspired by him being in the Berlin region, including Brandenburg' (the region) itself. He had recently added a fourth movement, unlike Bach. Also exiting (probably more so than the region...apart from Berlin itself, though there was word that the chipping of the wall was also included), as was finally Paul Moravec's 'Brandenburg Gate'. But I have to admit that at home concentration was not as good as it should have been, what with doing one thing or another at the same time.

So, the concert was good for education, and probably, had I stayed for the second half, I might have joined that excitement. Oh well....


Friday, May 06, 2011

Orfeo - yet again

I've reviewed the Vilnius Orfeo at least three times (and I've probably seen it more often than that) - and yesterday it was the Orfeo, by Gluck, at the Met Opera. Slightly a step up, in ticket cost and probably soloists as well.

This production was by Mark Morris, a well-known choreographer - and it showed. Lots of dancing in it. To be honest, at the beginning I found the production a bit boring, both visually (the colours were fairly drab) and in terms of action - some of the dancing seemed a bit pointless. But I suppose in New York, especially this week, it would be a bit sensitive to set it in the 9/11 scenario as the Vilnius performance had been, especially this week, with screaming sirens, firemen (including Orfeo) running all over the place, Orfeo's first appearance being a scream from the middle of the audience and so on.

This version was set in a kind of Roman theatre, like the Colloseum, with, I am told, famous people from all periods, on three or four levels, represented in the choir. It was a big choir! If you think about it, the underworld, or heaven, or hell, being full to bursting with famous and not so famous people. I wonder where the guy who died earlier this week (you know who I mean) ended up. Do Muslims believe in heaven and hell, or is that more of a Christian thing?

The overture was oh so martial! I was a bit startled at that. Afterwards it settled down; I did notice the difference in this version (for Vienna) in the famous Euridice aria, and I also thought that the dance of the blessed spirits was a bit short (no repeats?). The dance of the furies was not all that furious - the grey spectrum colours did not exactly help, either.

The singing was awesome, though. David Daniels, the countertenor, had a lovely warm voice, unlike some of the more screechy countertenors heard in Vilnius, and Amor was great, too - also in the acting. Euridice seemed to have a very small role (does she have a bigger role in the Italian version?) so Kate Royal was a bit limited in being able to show off her full potential - but the scene of where she was trying to persuade her Orfeo to look at her was heartbreaking.

The dancing scene at the end, which went on rather longer than in the Vilnius (and Italian) version (but hey, what do you have a choreographer for as producer) was rather fun; much more colourful (in terms of clothes) than the rest of the opera, and rather funkily disco dancing to the sounds of baroque/classical music.

The show went on without a break. Next to me I had a German couple who were chatting a bit too much for my liking (quite apart from the at least 3 cellphones that went off during the performance) - it seems they thought it might have been Andreas Scholl as the countertenor, but it wasn't.


Saturday, April 30, 2011

Brutal Democracy!

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra may be unique in always playing without a conductor - though at least the Kremerata Baltica does it quite often, too. But I have never seen an orchestra where the soloist sidles in with the whole band, in the middle of them, rather than making an entrance on his or her own! Not sure that every soloist could take that - it's not exactly ego-boosting. More like Prima inter Pares, in tonight's case, with Arabella Steinbacher as the soloist. And then, without a conductor, there is no one for the soloist to hold on to, so to speak - quite often, in concerts, there are many exchanges of gaze between conductor and soloist, but here she was pretty much on her own - in difficult pieces. Who could she communicate with? Who was leading? But the Orpheus gets plenty of excellent soloists, so it must be all right. The fact that Gidon Kremer complained bitterly about the band in one of his many autobiographies does not mean that much, he's a bit prone to doing that.

Another unusual aspect is that the seats in the orchestra keep changing, particularly in the strings - so the person who was in a seat in one piece may be sitting in a completely different seat (in the same instrument group). Not entirely sure that that really matters, especially since they've always done it, but it's interesting. So if you are in the band, you could be sitting anywhere, unlike in other orchestras where people work their way from the back to the front, if they are lucky, or all the way to the back, if they aren't.

Anyway, the concert started with R Strauss' wind serenade, op 7, for a rather large group of winds. A very romantic piece, written in 1881, so quite early in his career - the guy lived quite long. Actually, he was an adolescent lad of 17 then; his dad was a very good horn player... It was a nice piece, but the sound arrived at my seat like a big bowl of chicken soup with lots of spaghetti length noodles - the individual voices were not very clear. Perhaps that was his intention? It was nice, but the texture, I felt, could have been better. I was eyeing those four horns at the back and thinking about the Schumann piece for four horns and orchestra....

Then we had, wandering in in the middle of the band, Arabella Steinbacher, who mercifully wore a bright red gown, so we could identify her more easily (plus she was the only one standing up, once the orchestra had settled, apart from one bassist). The concerto was Hartmann's Concerto Funebre, written at the start of the second world war - and I wonder what he knew about all the horrors being committed at the time. Nut surprisingly it was somewhat of a dark piece (not sure about the hope being expressed in the last movement, as the programme notes say). It had a very biting, strident third movement, which was awesome. Steinbacher, who played this from memory (awesome all by itself, try asking Y Bashmet to play anything from memory), did wonderfully - getting a nice dark, mournful tone from her violin - and everything hung together.

Following the interval, we had Mozart and Haydn. As a result few people left the concert hall, compared to last week's effort by the American Symphony Orchestra. Mozart's Adagio, and Rondo, for violin and orchestra. Both sublimely played and Steinbacher again produced quite a beautiful tone, very different from the Hartmann (well, obviously - but not everyone might have been able to 'get' these different moods). Finally she added an encore, of something really well-known, of the virtuosic variety (Kreisler, I am told) which knocked the socks off the audience. For this she got a bit of a standing ovation - a real one, not one caused by people rushing out of the hall. Incidentally, I am sure I heard her in Vilnius with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, before my blogging days - but it's not mentioned in her biography. Maybe rightly so....

The concert (almost) ended with Haydn's London Symphony. Here I thought that at times it did not quite hang together. In the second movement there was a moment when a big idea fell apart a little bit - too much of a rest between the strings finishing and the flutes entering; and in the trio the oboe seemed to get a bit carried away with himself - trying to add suspense, but it was a bit over-stretching the knicker elastic. Otherwise it was fine, and even with multiple instrument roles obviously this band can hold it together.

The next bit was again a bit surprising. The applause started, the orchestra bowed, and trouped out en masse, with all instruments, even the basses, being carried off. But the applause was continuing - and so they all trooped back. Also a bit unusual. They gave an encore, Handel, either fireworks or water music with nice horn lines - this was in aid of something; someone had given short speech - something to do with the patrons. Who obviously need to be treated in a very kind way, especially these days. It was a very pleasant end to the evening - and then the orchestra trooped out one way, and the audience the other way - after rather brief applause (by that time the concert had become quite long).

But overall, it's a very nice and great band - particularly given the challenge of working without a conductor. Though hey, they've been at that long enough to have worked out a modus operandi!


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Love, love, love....

Last night at Carnegie Hall it was Thomas Quasthoff, Michael Schade, Bernarda Fink and Sylvia Schwartz singing, with Malcolm Martineau and Justus Zeyen on the piano. Both of them, on the same piano, for almost the whole programme. That kind of programming is quite rare, I would have thought. Maybe the left-over of Hausmusik as it was played in domestic living rooms in the early 19th century?

The programme was all Schumann and Brahms, Liebeslieder (love songs), mostly, though some also addressed to 'die Heimat'. It was the first time I had heard all of them live, and I was very curious about Quasthoff about whom I have read so much, including his autobiography. He's quite the star in the German scene. Oh yes, did I mention that all the songs were in German?

So first there was Schumann's Spanish Songbook. I am noticing that just now, when I can read the programme (these fat programmes seem to be always free here in the glorious US). I have to say I did not hear much Spanish anything in them. But it probably explains why the river 'Ebro' (Ebrus?) was mentioned in one of the songs. The programme talks about bolero-like rhythms.... they must have been very subtle.

Brahms' lovesong waltzes followed - these were clearly waltzes, and much fun was had on the stage. Sadly, throughout the evening, the ladies were a bit stiff, while the lads were having quite a lot of fun. Then more Brahms - four quartets, longingly singing of 'die Heimat' - that was a very moving quartet (psycho-question to self - why did I find that so moving?), and finally Brahms' NEW lovesong waltzes. More of the same, to some degree.

So the programme was very homogeneous, but quite lovely, beautifully sung, apart from those restrained ladies (who nevertheless sang beautifully). My heart did sink a bit when I saw the number of songs, but most were quite short. All the singers, it seems are very very high class singers - and maybe I was just a bit far from them, in the dress circle. Gee, those stairs are steep - both those getting up to there, and those in the cress circle climbing down to the lower rows.

Finally there were two encores of German folksongs, sung immediately after each other - "Da unten im Tale' and something about 'die Heide' which I know well but cannot remember the words. Quasthoff said it was his favourite song, and certainly, the performance was totally sublime! Come to think of it, as were some of the other Lieder as well. It was a great evening!


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Loud and Very Long!

So I had bought a ticket to the American Symphony Orchestra yesterday, in the Carnegie Hall. Since the tickets are relatively cheap at 25 dollars (plus booking fee) I had not looked at what they are playing (A friend normally plays in the band but was sick yesterday).

The programme was Paul Dessau's 'Passover in Exile', a monumental work, well-timed to fit the season, with a huge orchestra, two choirs, 14 adult and 3 child soloists (Dessau used to work in Hollywood where maybe he worked with huge forces; he clearly had not read Bach's correspondence, pleading for being allowed more than about 12 singers (I think) in his choirs).

My seat was in the box right over the percussion and the brass, a move I soon regretted - the piece was LOUD! Essentially it's the story of the Jews fleeing Egypt, so in terms of action and aggression it had much in common with Bach's Passions. It was sung in Hebrew, I think - certainly the transliterated words in the programme did not look Russian, as a guy beside me told his accompanying female. Must have been quite something for the singers to get their tongues round.

Interestingly the hall, which was almost sold out according to the Carnegie hall website, was only about 80% full, and nearer 60% full by the time the second half started. During the interval I went outside, and was nearly knocked down by people rushing away - far away. A trickle kept trickling out during the long second half of the concert, too. Hard when you have to manoeuver a walking aid with wheels, but people managed, fairly gracefully. I expected the audience to be more Jewish than normal, but generally it did not seem to be - the more visible Orthodox Jews seemed to prefer besporting themselves on Roosevelt Island that afternoon - the tram over had been packed by families in their finery, with hugely excited children. Maybe going to concerts is not something Orthodox Jews do?

Sooooo, it was very long - pages and pages of text, and near the end I kept praying that I would see the basses turn to the last page - which eventually came. Somewhere in the second half there was rather a nice children's song, or so it seemed - but it seemed to have endless verses. Generally three verses are quite enough of anything! Most of the time the piece was very very loud, with lots of brass, percussion, two pianos on the other side of the stage, a harp, every possible bit of force the composer could muster. Except the shofar - I would have expected that in it as well. What did it cost to put this show on?

I wondered whether the composer had ever written 'p' as in 'piano' in the score. Maybe 5 times it was a bit quieter, for a very short while, but generally it was 'fff' throughout. The soloists were fine; the opening bass particularly good. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus' conductor annoyed me, though. She sang along with the choir (female voices only, including 5 boys), and rather dramatically stage managed the choir with huge waves of her arm each time they had to stand up or sit down. Surely she could have led them by example, just sitting down or standing up? They all looked like pretty good girls....

I like it when I go to concerts and get something unexpected, which is why I buy tickets sometimes without looking what is on. This was a learning experience! At the same time I think I am done with this piece - would be happy to hear Bach's Passions ad nauseam, or rather ad never nauseam; this piece I can give a miss.


Monday, April 18, 2011

St John Passion in NY

Heard it today in the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, performed by the St Andrew Chorale and Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Henderson. Last night I could have heard the St Matt's Passion, elsewhere, but I had already been to Wozzeck in the afternoon.

Managed to use my student ID to get in a bit cheaper. The church was not that well sold - maybe 80% or so. So the band consisted of a choir of about 40 people and a small orchestra, with one cello and one bass. Virtually behind whom I sat, and I now know every bass note in that piece.

Andrew Henderson sort of conducted from the harpsichord. Sort of because in the choruses he stood up and conducted, similarly in anything that involved orchestral forces - he harpsichorded mainly in the recitatives.

I noticed they sang from the Henle Urtext edition, which may explain why the very sad closing chorus (Ruhe sanft), was unexpectedly followed by a rather up-beat chorale. Did Bach really urtext that?

I thought that overall the choruses lacked tension. There is a lot of aggression in that piece, and that did not really come out. Once or twice I also thought that the chorus and the orchestra were a little apart. The evangelist, Andrew Fuchs, was wonderful, though, totally enacting the whole story line. His German diction was perfect (surname, hmmm?) and he did a lot to keep the thing flowing. The other soloists, who kept stepping out of the choir, were not bad either, though none had Mr Fuchs' perfect diction. Some could have been more faithful to the score on the dynamics.

The orchestra was generally quite ok, though the cellist seemed to be struggling a bit in his main solo part which was a shame. At another moment the first violins came completely off their skids in their solo part, but managed to recover. I assume the instrumental musicians were professionals. They did have a nice touch with baroque interpretation and little vibrato.

It was ok, but the evangelist definitely won the day!


Sunday, April 17, 2011

NOT 'the Barber of Seville'

as I overheard on leaving the gruelling, gruelling performance of Wozzeck, by Alban Berg, at the Met yesterday afternoon. No, Ma'am, it certainly was not.

To be honest, I would not have gone if someone had not forced a ticket on me. And I am very very grateful to him!!! It's an amazing piece, quite a psychodrama. It's short (was performed without an interval, or 'innermission' as Americans call it. Apparently yesterday's performance was broadcast in Europe, and probably elsewhere, so a friend of mine in the UK caught it, too.

The production was fairly star studded, with Waltraud Meier (a big [not physically] Wagnerian) as Marie (why are women in such dramas always called 'Marie'?), and Alan Held as Wozzeck. Amazing was also Gerhard Siegel as the Captain, who constantly asks for people to live life slowly, and Walter Fink as the doctor, who sees patients mainly as cases, and was desperate to become immortal through some medical discovery. The music, which is very much into sound painting (Klangmalerei) seems to be extremely demanding of singers - I realise why this cannot be performed everywhere (say, Vilnius, hush my mouth). The way the music reflects the emotions is truly awesome! Like Wagnerian operas, this one does not do arias, but is more of a rapidly changing conversation. With fairly rapidly changing sets, which were simple, but ingenious.

Although this opera is gruelling, especially at the end, and involves a murder, it did contain some funny moments, such as the vain doctor, and the captain with his own philosophy of life.

James Levine, who has not been well recently, was conducting. Apparently he is really attached to this opera, understandably. (I must say that the subtitles, in German and English) really helped the understanding of it, though the singers' diction was also fairly clear (quite a few seemed to be German.... He was cheered onto the stage, or rather into the pit, but was unable to join the performers on the stage. But these New Yorkers annoy me, at the end of concerts. Many stand up, but it's only to rush to the exit. Meanwhile, those of us who want to keep applauding, cannot see anything, so are forced into a standing ovation (which was deserved here). Some prat behind me started applauding as soon as the last tone expired - but really this opera needs a bit of contemplation before the applause.

It's an opera I would definitely go to see again, though it has just finished its run for this season.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Second New York Philharmonic Concert – I walked out!

So while waiting for the concert to start I thought that it might be quite boring to blog about concerts in New York, given that I expected most to be pretty perfect. Wrong!

Tonight it was Kurt Masur (in a grey silk smock, later exchanged for a brown one), the orchestra with Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young as viola soloists. To be fair, Masur was a little under the weather – we had received an email before the concert that he could not conduct the middle (contemporary) piece on account of an eye infection and being unable to see the score. He seems to be well-loved in New York as the former music director of the NY Phil and now its Conductor Emeritus, though, with his arrival on the stage being greeted by cheers from the audience.

The concert started with Liszt's Preludes, which I thought I might have played in Hungary, but had not in fact. I did know them very well, though, though I might never have thought that they are by Liszt. There did not seem to be a drop of Hungarian blood in them, or at least in this interpretation. They sounded rather teutonic, in fact. They were nice, of course, but did not set the heather alight.

They were followed by Cynthia Phelps (in a turquoise shoulder-less outfit a la Mutter), and Young (in a single-shouldered outfit, in dark lilac) in Gubaidulina's 'Two Paths – a dedication to Mary and Martha'. This was a very slow, and very contemplative piece, conducted by the young assistant conductor of the NY Phil, with great precision and vigor. The piece was not particularly vigorous, however, more of a meditation/contemplation. Young, who seemed to be fixed to the C-string, produced a wonderful sound – Phelps was more in nosebleed country. It was an interesting, but slow and non-virtuosic piece (apart from those high harmonics) and I noticed watches being looked at by the people around me. The applause was 'endenwollend' (willing itself to end), as they might say in Germany

Finally it was Brahms' first symphony, conducted again by Masur. I love this piece – but oy vey, the interpretation. Where was the tension of those opening bars? Then I contemplated leaving, but the second movement put the hat on it. It was like watching paint dry – so excruciatingly slow. I did wonder if it was the distance from the stage that left me so cold – quite apart from the draft hitting my neck. I left, as did someone else who said 'the Brahms was shit'. He shall remain nameless.....


Too many Fis(c)hers by half

Last Wednesday (6th) it was the (Chamber?) Orchestra of St Luke's, with the conductor Ivan Fisher and the violinist Nikolaj Znaider, at the Carnegie Hall, with an Eastern European programme consisting of Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak.

I went along with the idea of Fis(c)her conducting all of Haydn's symphonies (I have the full set on my iPod) and found his interpretation of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony suitably light and springy, fully Haydnesque.

And then the Tchaikovsky violin concerto started similarly lightly – as transparent as I have ever heard it. This was going to be interesting! Almost like a classical piece! But then Znaider, wearing a black suit with a scarlet lining, launched into a purely romantic interpretation, with lots of …..Somehow it did not seem to match the orchestra's style, and yet, somehow, it worked. Znaider wrung out every emotion from the piece, and then some. He replied to the rapt applause with a little bit of Bach, which I found quite nice, but at the beginning of this the phrasing went a bit astray – the phrases were merged into each other, though he recovered by the end of it.

Finally we had Dvorak's 7th symphony, of which, after almost a week, I cannot remember that much. Like all Dvorak it had a lovely viola solo or two, and some nice Bohemian country dance themes which the conductor (and the somewhat sparser audience than in the first half of the concert) enjoyed enjoyed fully – I think; the applause after this seemed somewhat sparing, but perhaps this is the New York style.

Returning home, I switched on my iPod for some more Fis(c)her Haydn – only to discover that these were conducted by the Hungarian Adam Fischer, rather than Ivan Fisher. Oops.


Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Vilnius, the Viola and Carnegie Hall

So there I was in the fairly packed Carnegie Hall, listening to Midori, Nobuko Imai, Antoine Lederlin (cello) and Jonathan Biss (piano) and it suddenly occurred to me that on two days running I would be in the hall, and each of those days a master-class giver to the Lithuanian Music Academy, somewhat sponsored by me, would be performing on the stage. Awesome.

I'd never heard Midori before (nor two of the others) - incredible to be in the presence of such a legend. The music was all classical (Haydn) or romantic (Schubert, Dvorak, plus a romantic encore) chamber music. Midori plays like an intense, hyperactive flea; lots of movement, even where you would not expect it, but very very intense. Her cellist, Lederlin, on the other hand, had a very quiet stage presence, which balanced Midori well. (I could not really see the pianist, sorry). At the beginning I was in the dress circle, somewhat high above the stage (my neighbour commented that he tended to suffer from vertigo), and at times it was very difficult to hear her (and the cellist) over the piano - not least when she plays pianissimo she really does achieve it, as did her cellist partner (later, even in the second row, I had difficulties at times). The pieces were sublimely played, but I thought the Schubert could have done with more weltschmerz.

In the second half of the concert Nobuko Imai joined them, for the Dvorak piano quintet. Like much of Dvorak's writing it had a gorgeous viola line or two, which were very enjoyable. It was a interesting combination; the fierce intensity of Midori, the quietness of the cellist, and Ms Imai somewhere in between the two. At times I thought Ms Imai could have played with a little more vigour, to balance Midori. I wondered why she did not play in the whole programme, or are there such few piano quartets?

It would have been nice, in terms of the whole concert, to have something contemporary, too; something the performers and the audience could get their teeth into. It was all a bit too beautiful.

While the concert was part of the Japan season at the Carnegie Hall, it has not taken on particular meaning, given the earthquake less than a month ago, and the manager of Carnegie Hall came on stage to ask to a minute's silence (has he been doing this at every Japan concert in the last month, I asked myself). Interestingly, in America don't seem to stand for these things.


Friday, April 01, 2011

A vibrato that can cut steel!

Got to NY yesterday morning, after about 20 hours of travel, rushed about all day, and at night rushed into my first NY concert, that of Anne-Sophie Mutter, the New York Philharmonic and Michael Tilson-Thomas, no less!

What can you say to people like this? It's very hard....

The concert started with Prokofiev's Overture on American Themes, played by a much reduced NY Philharmonic orchestra; one cello, two harps, two double basses, a few strings, percussion, celesta, two pianos etc. I wonder what made him write for such a combination. The music was quite American, but the themes were not that well-known to me. Structure was fast, slow, fast. It was quite a fun piece!

Then Ms Mutter appeared, with an enlarged orchestra, to play Gubaidulina's 'In tempus praesens' - a NY premiere. Also essentially a piece in the same structure, with a cadenza - so fairly conventional in form. Ms Mutter, in the mermaid-style shoulder-free dress of which she always wears her concert outfits (very well), opened with such a strong vibrato that I wondered if Ms Gubaidulina had written this expressly in the score. Her sound could have cut steel, and certainly arrived well at the end of the hall! It reminded me of some concerts recently where I had said that the soloists did not get well above the orchestra (and I had blamed it on not having my hearing aid in). This time I suspect even without my artificial support I would not have written that I couldn't hear her! The piece was very interesting, though not of a whistle-able type, and the somewhat sparse applause at the end of it showed the audience's puzzle with it. Essentially it was a variety on the theme of 'scales' - covering the violin from low G to 'stratospheric', but wow, what a sound production! The strings were a bit thin in numbers, and I realised only later that it does not seem to contain violins - the orchestra was lead by the violists! (Is it Schnittke's viola concerto that is organised like this, too?). There was much percussion, as the often the case with contemporary East European music. The first two movements were quite atmospheric, and not all that virtuosic - the last movement, supported by a very rhythmic insertion of, mmm, heavy beats, made up for this. It was an awesome performance - I just wonder about that very heavy vibrato, and wondered how Bashmet might have played it, had he played violin.

Finally it was, I assume, the full NY Phil band, with Tchaikovsky's second symphony. It was interesting to see how many Asian faces it contained - does it reflect the NY population proportions, I wondered? But such an orchestra gets the best players from anywhere. I thought that I had not heard this symphony before, but later recognised quite a few places in it. It opens with a terrifying horn solo - at least with this orchestra you don't have to be at the edge of the seat, wondering if the hornist will make it. It is a bit unusual in that it does not contain a slow, contemplative movement, but skips along from the beginning to the end. I also wondered what it would be like to set a ballet to it. There were flavours of Swan Lake, and the last movement reminded me strongly of Mussorgsky's Pictures of an Exhibition, particularly the Greate Gates of Kiev. It was an awesome performance, and I liked the way the first and second violins were sitting opposite each other - that really worked very well. Tilson-Thomas seems to be a very precise conductor - it would be difficult not to know which beat you are on (unlike with many other famous conductors), and he really brought out the dance and joy in this music.

Very interesting applause - it started while the orchestra was still finishing the last note. A couple of people jumped up for a standing ovation; in time others did, too, but mostly in order to put on their coats; there is no place to leave coats in this concert hall. So orchestras, conductors and soloists should not let a standing audience go to their heads, unless it's in the middle of the concert....


Saturday, February 19, 2011

New York, New York!!!

Yay! I'm going to move to New York soon, for a job. Unbelievable - I can't wait!

Have worked out how much I will earn - it's a bit more, partly pay rise, partly cost-of-living adjustment, but oy vey, the costs of NY! Housing won't leave much change out of 3000 dollars per month, and then there are always these weird taxes - prices seem to be recorded without sales tax, so whatever it says in the book or on the website, you pay more. Need to check out about my organization's employees' status; in other countries we have diplomatic status and get our sales tax back, but not sure about the US, given that we need a visa to work there.

Looked at the food prices which also seemed high, until I converted the Botswana prices into dollars (as opposed to Euros or Litas, like I used to do); probably costs are not that much higher, except for things like meat and so on. Cigarettes, on the other hand, are vastly higher, so I am cutting back dramatically. Did go for 36 hours without one earlier this week, but at the moment am having about 2 or 3 a day. It's quite a good test of resolve to have a packet of them lying there and not touching them.

Concert tickets are already getting into control; am on the mailing list of one or two orchestras, including also the Lincoln centre (there are some flats available there - at vast cost), and I hope to get into concerts as soon as I land in NY.

Watch this space!