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…and perhaps the Met will put on a good Turandot production.

1/7 Turandot @ The Metropolitan Opera

1. Why would a tenor who cannot be heard over the orchestra, especially up in the Family Circle, be allowed to perform? At the beginning of the opera I thought that the orchestra had perhaps decided to play really loudly. I’ve never had a problem hearing vocalists at the Met, even way up in the balcony, but Philip Webb, who played Calaf, was mostly inaudible for the entire opera. By the time Act II rolled around, I had pretty much resigned myself to enjoying the playing of the orchestra and mentally substituting Franco Corelli’s voice. When Webb went to strike the gong 3 times at the end of Act 1 to declare Calaf’s intent to pursue the princess Turandot, he missed the first time. Seemed fitting. Surprisingly, his version of “Nessun Dorma” was pretty decent (and audible), and given a nice round of applause by the audience, but turned into an awkward moment when conductor Andris Nelsons decided to pause the music and then realized the audience wasn’t THAT enthusiastic and silence reigned. The other vocalists were bearable, though not standouts. Maria Guleghina as Turandot was stronger than Webb, but sounded as if she had swallowed her upper register and was all over the place with some of her pitches.  Maija Kovalevska sang well as Liu, but her character sounded distant, and I did not feel particularly empathetic towards her. The chorus and the orchestra provided a bright spot, but certainly not enough to overcome the disappointment of the leads. 

2. 35 minutes of music and 25 minutes of intermission? Really? I understand that the magnificent set by Zefferelli probably requires a large amount of time to change. And I gasped like many in the audience when the imperial, gaudy scene of the second act was revealed. But almost as much time chilling in my seat as watching the opera? Wonderful as the visual effect may be, I don’t think it justifies 25 minutes of intermission. As a director once told me, people come to the theater to watch acting and singing, not scene changes.

3. Speaking of the set, why did the designers choose to leave a black drape hanging down that blocked the back of the set for most of the balcony? Does no one bother to go up to Family Circle and realize that all anyone can see of the emperor is his feet? I understand that I paid less for my ticket, but I did not purchase a discounted “limited view” seat, so why block my view with a black drape that served no observable purpose?  If the Met wants to attract a younger crowd, most of whom can’t afford a 100$ orchestra seat (and don’t have time to wait in line for 20$ ones) and will likely be sitting in the Family Circle, they should try and make a good impression. Or just take the time to look at a production from the point of view of everyone. Common courtesy? 

Perhaps I’ve overblown the significance of the failures of the production, but I walked away disapointed at the sloppiness and plain lack of care. I know that the performance wasn’t a gala opening night or the run of a new production, and there probably wasn’t anyone “important” there, but an impressionable young student who can advertise the Met to other impressionable young students (who I’m sure the Met hopes will attend when they can afford it) was there. I have the potential (like many others in the audience) to be a potent marketing tool, but after an experience like that I had on Thursday, I don’t feel like recommending the Met to anyone. What if that had been my first opera experience? I would likely not go back. And the Met should realize that perhaps the most important audience member is not in row E, but is in G116, way up in the balcony, and treat each production as a chance to impress that blossoming young opera fan.

12/20 CONTACT! New Music Series @ The Metropolitan Museum Auditorium

Magnus Lindberg-Conductor

Game of Attrition-Arlene Sierra

Verge- Lei Liang

Melodia- Marc-André Dalbavie

Macunaíma- Arthur Kampela

It’s not often that one can say they saw the Upper East Side premier of 4 new works, but on Saturday that was the case. I attended the second performance of the New York Philharmonic’s offshore new music series, Contact!, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s auditorium. The works were given their world première on Thursday at the Upper West Side’s Symphony Space. While the format of the concert was a little rough, and some of the premieres were disappointing, I think the series has the potential to grow into a respected and exciting outlet for new music.

The format of the concert was a short interview with the composer of each piece followed by a performance. This gave the concert a more intimate feel as well as a providing some guide to the pieces, some of which might have been inexplicable without it. However, it would be greatly augmented if short musical passages to emphasize the composer’s points could be added beyond the miniscule one that was played. If the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert want to bring new music to “the common man”, and I believe they do, explanations should use vocabulary the common man can understand. To throw out a term like “spectral music” or to talk about the chords that certain pitches form without playing those chords are examples of the over complication that scares many people away from modern music. The concert is about finding a contact point, not intimidation.

The most of interesting of the pieces was Lei Liang’s Verge, for 4 string quartets and 2 double basses, written the month before and after his son Albert’s birth. The players were arranged in a semicircle and were grouped into different ensembles throughout the piece, giving an interesting shifting effect as well as broadening the orchestration, not limiting it to one traditional group.

Arlene Sierra’s Game of Attrition deserves a second listen-her introduction described the piece as an evolution of melodic cells and “games” played out between instruments, but I struggled to hear this idea. However, the idea intrigues me, and the thorny sound of the music fit that of a competition.

Dalbavie’s  piece was uninteresting and not particularly original. It was based on a Gregorian chant, but sounded more like a summary of French music of the past 100 years. I would rather have heard Ravel.

I was most excited about Arthur Kampela’s piece after his dynamic introduction, so its bad cliches made it the biggest disappointment. Kampela explained that one of his composing methods was to give talented players other instruments to work with. Why, when you have talented musicians of the caliber of those in the New York Philharmonic, would you give them percussion instruments that 6th graders have mastered? A harp player is not going to bring new subtleties to the Thunder Tube. The piece ran far too long for what ended up being almost a parody of modern music.

Although not all the pieces were pleasing, I did enjoy the chance to “contact” with a cross-section of what is going on in new composition.

On Break

 I’m out of town so no updates will occur for awhile. However, I’ll be back!

Happy holidays and New Year!

12/18 neoLIT Ensemble @ Bargemusic

Masha Lankovsky, Violin

Aminda Asher, Cello

Katya Mihailova, Piano

I’ve been meaning to get over to Bargemusic, the old coffee barge moored at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge that hosts chamber music concerts, for a long time, and finally got the chance  last Friday. It’s an interesting conception-music on a boat! and not just any music, but chamber music!-borne out by the great acoustics and lovely view of the skyline of downtown Manhattan.  You almost forget you’re on a boat until it suddenly shifts in its moorings (how the cellist managed I’m not quite certain.) Unfortunately the lovely setting was slightly marred by some sloppy piano playing.  The neoLIT Ensemble, a group of musicians dedicated to the performance of 20th and 21st century works, particularly by female composers, seemed to be taking a break with some Haydn and Dvorak, although they threw in Paul Schoenfield’s 1987 Cafe Music for a modern perspective. The problem that was to plague the group the entire night was apparent: the pianist, Katya Mihailova, did not know her part. While violinist Masha Lankovsky and cellist Aminda Asher seemed to have a strong conception of the shape of each movement, Mihailova was playing for each note, looking wildly between the music and the keyboard, missing chords and scale notes, basically looking like someone who had read through the music 2 times before performing it. I was amazed at the sheer audacity it took to get up on stage so unprepared. And that was a real shame, because if she had been familiar with the pieces, it would have been a great performance. Cafe Music by Paul Schoenfield was a charming and enjoyable piece, but I need to listen to it again. I find it somewhat insulting that I made the effort to go to the concert, and the same effort was not exerted by a performer. The reason I go to professional concerts is because I enjoy feeling confident in the performers and not being bothered by mistakes they make. Unfortunately this was not the case. Hopefully it was just an off night.

Butter on the Ivories

12/15 Jean-Yves Thibaudet @ Carnegie Hall

I’ll just admit it up front: the reason I know about Jean-Yves Thibaudet is because I watched the movie Pride and Prejudice. Yes, it was that bit of pop culture that introduced me to this wonderful pianist. But, I’m happy to say, the same qualities that drew me to his playing in the soundtrack are just as admirable in his performance of classical repertoire. Mr. Thibaudet has a smooth, buttery sound that shimmers, particularly in the slow movement of songs. He plays each note and phrase with infinite care, truly crafting a piece from the music provided (I realized this as I tried to imitate his playing of the theme from Pride and Prejudice – I just could not play it with as much focus and poise as he did.) I was impressed last year when I heard  him play Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the New York Philharmonic, but I think his real realm is the recital, playing the piano like a symphony.

Tuesday he played a program of Ravel’s Miroirs and Pavane pour une infante défunte and Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3, giving symphonic and yet nuanced accounts of all three works. The Pavane was reflective, not as much a dance as a reflection, a meditation on a long deceased princess. Miroirs was Thibaudet’s chance to shine, which he did with shimmering scalar passages, delicate melodies, and an enthusiastic, full reading of the famous Alborada, throwing himself into the chords. The chimelike quality of the last movement was also quite lovely. Thibaudet’s way of ending movements by leaving his hands on the piano and letting the last tones of the final notes ring and fade away gave a good indication of just how closely Thibaudet was listening to every note that he played.

The final piece on the program was Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3, an impetuous, youthful orchestral work that pointed strongly to the symphonies that were to come. Though some of the large fast sections sounded unsure in the first movement, the piece as a whole was given an exciting and thoughtful reading. The slow middle section was sublime, and the excitement of the finish was felt by the audience. Thibaudet was able to unify the lovely voicing and shimmering tones that characterized his playing of Ravel with the symphonic sounds and big chords specific to the Brahms. He finished the evening off with a stunning encore performance of Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, showing off the lyricism that is his true strength. Thibaudet is truly talented at making the piano sing, but in a complex voice all its own. His close attention to each note he plays certainly payed off in memorable, vivid accounts of each piece he played.

The Real Christmas

12/13 John Adam’s El Nino @ Carnegie Hall

Orchestra of St. Luke’s

John Adams-Conductor

Most Christmas songs about the Nativity story put me in mind of a medieval painting – the infant Jesus with a halo, Mary in beautiful blue, looking serene. John Adam’s El Nino put me strongly in mind of the recent movie “The Nativity Story”, a realistic, no frills account of the humans involved in the birth of Christ. John Adams brought the same sensibility to his Nativity oratorio, using a variety of Hispanic poetry about birth and multiple biblical accounts to give personality to the story. The result was a serious, emotional, and reverential treatment of one of the most well-known stories ever told. Adams originally composed the work in 2000 as a “Christmas oratorio for the new millenium”, and I think he accomplished that goal.

The piece was set for a large orchestra (the impressive St. Luke’s Orchestra) with a choir and 6 vocal soloists- a bass-baritone, 3 countertenors, mezzo-soprano, and soprano. Each voice sang a different role (the most interesting casting being the 3 countertenors as the angel Gabriel-ethereal, to be certain), but was not confined to that role alone. The chorus seemed to play the part of the shepherds or angels, echoing the soloists or singing choruses in great waves of sound. Their parts and strength in 4. For with God no thing shall be impossible and 9.Shake the Heavens were powerful and reverential, echoing a faith both modern and ancient. Dawn Upshaw, singing mostly as Mary, portrayed the excitement as well as the confusion and sorrow of the young mother well in a vocal part full of interval leaps. Michelle DeYoung was a powerful narrator, mostly in Spanish, while bass baritone Eric Owens had a solid stage presence, mostly singing the role of Joseph. The three counter tenors, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Steven Rickards sang well together, sounding otherworldly as the angel Gabriel. They also took an interesting turn as the 3 kings (I’m not sure if Adams was using the voices he had here or was trying to suggest something about the role the kings played…)

The orchestral accompaniment to the singers drew from a variety of sources, occasionally suggesting Latin rhythms and Baroque sounds, while at other times offering more murky modern sounds (although staying largely within the conventional sounds of the instruments.) The orchestra definitely functioned as the accompanist in the piece – the real drama was among the solo singers, but they did a fine job in support, helping to create an emotional atmosphere.

Adams’ piece offered an interesting, updated version of the Christmas story, although it was far too long. I thought it would have been perfect if the piece had ended at intermission, with the birth of Christ. While I was enthralled with the first “act”, my attention wandered during the second, especially as the piece went on what I felt were tangents that did not move it forward. The first half had a strong narrative drive, while the second seemed to move at a much more languid pace, finally ending with stories of Jesus from unpublished Gospels. However, the applause Adams earned from an enthusiastic crowd was certainly merited, and the length of the piece did not take away from its value as a significant oratorio for today.

For someone who dreads “Christmas music” and its trite tinny sound, El Niño was a refreshing reminder of the power and humanity of the story that started it all.

Lyricism

12/4 Vladimir Feltsman @ Carnegie Hall

I can’t imagine what it would be like to give a solo recital. It’s one thing when your part of an orchestra or even the soloist in a concerto-at least the attention is difused a little. But when you’re a soloist, its just you, that piano, and over 2000 people who need to be captivated and entertained. On Friday Vladimir Feltsman was up to the challenge, drawing the audience into his performances of Schubert and Liszt Sonatas. Feltsman’s interpretations brought out the lyricism of each piece, instead of turning them into vehicles to show off his technical prowess (cough, Lang Lang, cough), which I enjoyed. The highlight of the night was definetely the Lizst Sonata in B minor, the last work on the program. Feltsman brought a collected presence to this work, showing off strong voicing and play between both hands. The virtuosic passages were played with piazazz, while the beautiful melody of the second movement sounded beautiful. The emphatic recapitulation at the end of the piece was as dramatic as Lizst coul have wished. A lovely encore of Lizst’s Liebestraum No. 3 finished the night off just right.

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