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.