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....