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Posts Tagged ‘Igor Stravinsky’

NY Philharmonic: Out With a Bang and a Shriek

Posted on: June 30th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

The New York Philharmonic ended its regular subscription season last night with the last of three performances of a show conceived by Doug Fitch (Director/Designer), using music mainly by Igor Stravinsky to accompany a production titled “A Dancer’s Dream.”  Several rows of seats were removed from the front of the orchestra section to accommodate an extended stage, where dancers and various technical assistants would use lighting, cameras, costumes, miniature toys projected on a big screen, and other devices to create the magical world of “Petrouchka,” Stravinsky’s puppet ballet.  But that was the second half of the program.  The first half, much less enlivening and a bit of a strain on the attention of the audience, used the equally lengthy (but much less popular or familiar) Stravinsky ballet music for  “The Fairy’s Kiss” to suggest a dreamlike world in which a member of the audience gradually transforms herself into a prima ballerina, fit to portray Columbine in Petrouchka.

Or that’s what seemed to be going on.  Whatever.  The music of part one was lovely, if overly long.  The ballet was conceived as a tribute to Tchaikovsky, with Stravinsky borrowing themes from piano pieces and songs by the older composer and arranging them for his own dramatic purposes.  I think that once they decided not to present some sort of enactment of the plot Stravinsky intended for “The Fairy’s Kiss,” which was suggested by a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, then they could well have used the “Divertimento” that Stravinsky devised for concert performances, made up of the most interesting parts that would stand up in a concert setting without depicting a story.  Whatever they were trying to accomplish in part one could be done in half the time they used.

After intermission, a piece for piano four-hands by Louis Durey (1888-1979), the most obscure member of the Parisian composing clique of the 1920s called “les Six”, set the stage for the enactment of “Petrouchka.”  Durey’s rather nondescript music was adequate for its mood-setting purpose, but did not inspire me to think I should try to search out more of Durey’s music.  It seemed serviceable to accompany a dancer doing exercises to prepare for a major role.  It was well-played by NYP pianist Eric Huebner assisted by Steve Beck.  (Huebner, by the way, was spectacularly good in the challenging piano solos in Petrouchka.)

And all the music was well-played, given the circumstances, by a very charged-up Philharmonic directed by Alan Gilbert.  Since becoming music director, Gilbert has delighted in making each season’s final week a spectacular departure from the norm of subscription concerts, going out with a bang.  (Last year, they played the Armory!  In prior years they have given us stagings of rarely performed operas by Ligeti and Janacek.)  Fitch has played a role in several of these adventures as a master of puppetry and stage illusion, and he was at his imaginative best with the Petrouchka, abetted by wonderful young dancers, Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar, both prominent at New York City Ballet.  (Two prominent young opera singers were also featured, not as singers but as pantomime artists for a film that was an integral part of the Petrouchka presentation – Eric Owens and Anthony Roth Costanzo.)  The members of the Philharmonic were enlisted to do more than just play their instruments, as roving cameras projected their doings on the screen from time to time, and many of them donned colorful Russian-themed additions to their concert attire for the orchestra to enact the presence of the crowd at the Shrovetide Fair required by the opening and closing scenes of the ballet.  (They also engaged in rhythmic footstomping, standing and twirling about, and enthusiastic toasting with cups filled from samovars …. it was a wonder that the playing continued without missing a beat, although some of the tomfoolery may help to explain some cracked notes in the brass.)

And the shriek!  Prior to the performance, conductor Gilbert came on stage to pantomime (assisted by projected titles) a “rehearsal” of the audience in a mass shriek to be added at an appropriate moment in the performance.  I had assumed this would be when the Moor finishes off poor Petroushka with his scimitar…. but I guessed incorrectly.  It was to respond to the appearance of the chained bear during the Shrovetide Fair finale, and the audience contributed a wonderful shriek upon cue from Gilbert, who got into the action quite a bit.

On balance I would judge this about 2/3 successful, discounting for the less interesting, indeed somewhat bewildering, first part, but acknowledging the overwhelming success of the second, which fully deserved the repeated ovations from the audience.  Certainly I hope they keep bringing Doug Fitch back to plan more elaborate season-ending extravaganzas.  These are risky and expensive shows to put on, but they pack the hall and built enthusiasm for the NYP.

But, the evening also illustrated one of the problems the NYP has to deal with.  There is a declining subscriber base for orchestra seasons, and a portion of the remaining base is superannuated or not really that interested.  There are subscriptions that pass down the generations in families to land on the generation that doesn’t care, and there are certainly corporate subscriptions whose holders don’t always use their tickets.  Fitch’s NYP productions have become “hot tickets.”  The Philharmonic sent out an email to subscribers a week prior, observing that at any given concert about 15% of those holding subscription tickets don’t attend, don’t make the effort to pass their tickets to others, thus leaving their seats empty.  (Now that they can scan barcodes on tickets, they can know precisely who is showing up.)  There was a waiting list for tickets for these final concerts of the season, and the Philharmonic implored subscribers to donate their tickets back if they were not coming.   I imagine some tickets were turned in as a result, but on Saturday night, at a concert billed as “sold out” with a waiting list, there were empty seats.  I presume some subscribers who didn’t come also didn’t respond….  A shame that not everybody who wanted to attend this concert could be accommodated. 

Now, I’m looking forward to the truncated “Summertime Classics” series coming up the first week of July.  Unfortunately, this entertaining series has been much reduced from its original conception.  I suspect that the Philharmonic’s spring tour and its summer parks concerts, taken together with the necessary extension of the subscription season because of the tour, threatened to squeeze out Summertime Classics entirely, but I’m glad that at least two programs (each presented a few times) will be given. We must have our fix of series conductor Bramwell Tovey, the military academy bands on Independence Day, and some out-of-the-way repertory.  But I am nostalgic for the earlier years of this series when there were more programs and more novelties of repertory, some with first-rate instrumental soloists….  I imagine tickets are still available for this week’s concerts.  Rush to the NYP website for a real treat!

NYC Musical Diary – More May Concerts – Detroit SO, Alarm Will Sound, Musicians From Marlboro

Posted on: June 3rd, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Being busy with final exams and grading, I haven’t been to as many concerts as usual over the past few weeks, but I wanted to comment about a few:

May 10 in Carnegie Hall I attended one of their “Spring for Music” concerts, a presentation of the four symphonies of Charles Ives by Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  I’ve been an Ives fan since high school days, when I performed the double bass in a performance of Ives’s Symphony No. 2 by the Oneonta (NY) Symphony Orchestra.  Preparing for that experience I acquired the stereo LP of Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the NY Philharmonic as well as a full score published by Peer International.  I was shocked – shocked! – to discover that Bernstein made cuts in the piece when he recorded.  (Cuts that he retained when he made a new recording with the New York Philharmonic for DG two decades later, I might add.)  Who was he to second-guess the composer in that way?  (I’ve always been upset to discover when conductors have made cuts in a piece.  I once attended a performance of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony at the NY Philharmonic by a conductor who shall remain nameless where the performance was so heavily cut that I commented to my companion on that occasion that we had just heard a performance of “highlights” from Rach’s 2nd Symphony!)

Anyway, as far as I could tell everything was complete and uncut on May 10, resulting in a very long but gratifying concert.  First I should say that, never having heard this orchestra live before, I was extremely impressed, especially in light of the labor problems they’ve had and the slightly smaller string section than might have been ideal for all but the 3rd Symphony (which was intended by Ives for chamber orchestra).  On the other hand, they managed a big sound that was not inferior to what I’ve heard from larger ensembles playing in that space.  Slatkin has them playing to a very high technical standard, and the orchestra also seemed very engaged with and enthusiastic about the music.

Ives’s 1st Symphony, largely written while he was a Yale undergraduate, owes a heavy debt to Dvorak but still includes touches of harmony and orchestration that foreshadow the mature Ives of the 2nd Symphony to come.  I was particularly impressed in this performance by the gorgeous Adagio molto, where the Dvorak influence is at its heaviest but where the composer has made the most structurally and expressly coherent statement in his symphony.  The piece could even stand along as a tone poem and earn rave reviews.

The 2nd Symphony is usually a new listener’s way into Ives, as the most listener-friendly “Americana” piece he composed, full of allusions to American patriotic songs and hymn tunes, building to a finale dominated by “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” motifs from which permeate the earlier movements, giving an interesting unity to the work.  There are some “romantic” parts where some conductors go “all squishy” and lose the rhythmic profile, but Slatkin did not, providing a performance that rivals the old Bernstein while besting him with completeness (and better playing than the NYP was capable of giving back in the 1960s).

Within the context of the four symphonies, I thought the 3rd came through as the weakest.  Possibly Slatkin doesn’t care for it as much as the others, or perhaps it is just the limitations of the piece, being a rather slender thing between the big Nos. 2 & 4.  I suspect it didn’t get as much rehearsal time as the others, because this was the only one in which I felt ensemble was a bit slack and some of the key lines in the strings were not as precisely articulated as one could want.

This was the third performance I’d heard this season of the 4th Symphony – previously played by Botstein and the American Symphony and Gilbert and the NY Philharmonic – but I thought it was the best.  Slatkin spent some time helping the audience appreciate Ives’s audacity by taking apart some of the challenging 2nd movement and giving us examples of the different lines being combined.  The first time I listened to this piece – the old Stokowski/ASO recording back when I was in high school – I could make heads or tails out of that second movement. The key, I eventually learned, was that it is a huge scherzo, a great jest, and one has to just sit back and let it happen, without trying to find any rhyme or reason in it.  It is Ives taking  laugh at the absurdities of human existence, and heard that way, it is actually quite comical.  The third movement is Ives’s bow to traditionalism, taking a fugue he originally wrote for string quartet and tricking it out with a big, luscious string-dominated sound, but just to make sure you get get the joke, insert a quote toward the end from a religious song.  The finale is a cosmic mash-up, the music of the spheres, the universal sounds….  Slatkin/Detroit hit the target in every movement and gave the best Ives 4th I’ve ever heard live or on record.

It would be great if Naxos would release a complete Ives Symphonies set by these performers, even though it already has three of the symphonies in its catalogue with others.  They have Slatkin remaking his old Rachmaninoff Symphony recordings with Detroit (he already had recorded them as a youngster in St. Louis), but I think there is less need for those recordings than for really good recordings of Ives. 

The next evening, May 11, I attended a Musicians from Marlboro Concert presented by Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at the High School of Fashion Industries auditorium.  Quite a contrast with Carnegie Hall.  The bill of fare was Stravinsky Concertino for String Quartet, Britten String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94, Brahms Piano Quartet, Op. 26.  My favorite piece was the Brahms.  Indeed, in my humble opinion, Brahms was the greatest composer of chamber music in the 19th century, and perhaps for all time (although one must be cautious about predicting the future).  I’ve yet to hear any chamber piece by Brahms that I did not eventually conclude was a great masterpiece.  And I though these performers did it justice: Emilie-Anne Gendron (violin), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), Gabriel Cabezas (cello), Matan Porat (piano).  The Britten I didn’t care for as much, perhaps because I don’t know it very well and did not find it particularly engaging in this performance, despite strenuous efforts by the performers to convince me.  But the same performers did a fine job with the Stravinsky, which I greatly enjoyed.  The line-up was: Bella Hristova and Adnbi Um (violins, switching off first desk between the two pieces), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), and Angela Park (cello).

Next on my concert calender was a special event, on May 16 – the Juilliard graduation recital by Lachlan Glen & Friends.  Mr. Glen was co-organizer of the season-long Schubert lieder series together with Jonathan Ware, and I had so enjoyed attending many of those concerts that I jumped at the opportunity when Lachlan invited me to his graduation recital.  He majored in collaborative performance, which means that almost everything on the program involved him performing with other musicians, and it says alot about the esteem in which he is held by his colleagues at Juilliard that he had a stellar bunch of collaborators.  The singers included Rachael Wilson, Kyle Bielfield, Matthew Morris and Emmett O’Hanlon.  Tavi Ungerleider offered some terrific cello playing (especially a movement from the Rachmaninoff Sonata that was quite moving), and Dimitri Dover collaborated on some 4-hand piano music.  Lachlan has grown fantastically as a performer and collaborative artist over the past year, as I witnessed attending the Schubert concerts, starting with good technique and lots of enthusiasm and developing much subtlety of dynamic control and phrasing.  He surely has a great career ahead of him.  He’ll be joining the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Program this summer.

My most recent concert experience involved another friend, Alan Pierson, conducting his Irish group, the Crash Ensemble, in a fantastic evening at Zankel Hall (Carnegie Hall small ensemble venue) on May 17.  Crash Ensemble was actually started by its Musical Director, Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, in 1997, and Alan Pierson became its conductor several seasons ago.  (He’s best known as artistic director of the contemporary ensemble Alarm Will Sound and as the musical director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.)   This concert was a logical development of the recent Nonesuch recording by Pierson and Crash, collaborating with Dawn Upshaw and Iarla O Lionaird (Irish folk vocalist) on recent compositions by Dennehy, “That the Night Come” (Upshaw) and “Gra agus Bas” (O Lionaird).  Fine as that recording is, hearing the pieces performed live was a special treat and gave them additional meaning for me.  They began the program with two exciting songs by Osvaldo Golijov, “Lua Descolorida” and “How Slow the Wind.”   I have Upshaw’s recording of “Lua Descolorida,” where it has a piano accompaniment.  In this performance, the piece was accompanied by string quartet.  Golijov has also used it, with a different orchestration, in his San Marco Passion.  The lovely piece is lovely in any format, but I think Upshaw’s performance with the string accompaniment was more effective than the recording with piano accompaniment.

So, that’s my concert calendar for May concluded.  The NY Philharmonic was away on tour, but I’ll be hearing them a few times in June and looking forward to their Summertime Classics in July.