20 November, 2009

Concert Review: Philadelphia Orchestra Eschenbach

Concert Review: Philadelphia Orchestra - Christoph Eschenbach

November 19, 2009, Carnegie Hall
Mahler Symphony No. 7

For some reason I always run into concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra and concerts by Christoph Eschenbach (sometimes together) whenever I'm in NYC. This time, I was not able to get tickets for the BPO/Rattle Brahms cycle, but this concert, coming hard on the heels of the BPO, was oddly satisfying. I may not always like Eschenbach's often wayward and aloof ways, but I have high regards for his considerable strengths, chief amongst which the ability to re-think warhorses and cultivated imagination.

The Philadelphia is a staggeringly good orchestra these days (has always been in fact). It really is a pleasure hearing them play anything. That aside, perhaps their Mahler credential is not as strong as some of their brethens, like the CSO, NYPO, even BSO. In the vast canon of recorded Mahler, the Philadelphia had only a small share and even fewer that are distinguished, but that is changing due to the Ondine recordings (cycle?) conducted by Eschenbach.

Their burnished tone is not just confined to their famous strings, rather to all sections. Despite their powerful playing, nothing grates the ears, and that can be a little disconcerting in Mahler, where you likely want to hear struggles. Add to the equation the cool Eschenbach, and the enigma of the 7th symphony, this was not a concert for those who want pathos, or at least a healthy dose of sturm und drang. Although it took a while for the players to warm up to their best, under Eschenbach's gripping direction the symphony unfolded fluently. Sometimes the tempo was too fast for the music not to sound dispassionate. An example was gearing up for the last part of the sprawling first movement, at a tempo that was surely allegro, but not ma non troppo. Similarly, the Rondo-Finale was taken at a clip, with occasionally odd rhythmic pointing, so the conclusion was resounding enough but stripped of some triumphal grandeur. The story-telling here portrayed mother nature as finicky, even idiosyncratic, but not at all malignant. Perhaps that is fitting enough for a symphony Mahler calls his happiest.

Eschenbach brought out a wealth of details along the way. This worked best in the three inner movements, where I savored every second of the enchanting playing. They not only played with great individuality but they listened to each other and sometimes it felt like chamber music on the grand scale, not a bad way to play Mahler's reflection on nature and man.

When it ended, the fellow behind me said: "...(Eschenbach) is all nuts in his head, but how he made them PLAY!..." The appluase was tumultous. The hall was packed and the balcony was stuffed by young students. How refreshing. Mahler's future is bright. A wonderful concert.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's review of the concert one day before

The NY Times review

19 November, 2009

Opera Review: La Damnation de Faust

pic of production from the NYT

Opera Review: La Damnation de Faust

Oct 17, 2009

Metropolitan Opera

Berlioz La Damnation de Faust

NYT review (full review of original 2008 production)
NYT review (capsular review of this 2009 revival)

I attended the last performance of this re-run of last year’s hugely popular production. This opera would not have been so successful if not for the visual wizardry of director Robert Lepage. Admittedly I have never been a fan of the music and went for the theatre part of it, and in the end I got not much more than what I had bargained for.

Although the visual alignment was not perfect for someone sitting in the family circle, one could see all the happenings and even learn how some of the visual tricks were achieved. Aligned close to the front, the simple set of evenly spaced tall support columns and planks spanning the full width of the stage divides the vertical plane into grids. Aided by video projection onto mechanized screens these were alternately transformed into rooms with windows. The rooms were populated most of the time by the chorus and dancers, less often by the main characters.

The visuals were riveting most of the time. One got busy in the futile attempt to register everything happening in every grid. The lighting was masterly, imparting much needed three-dimensionality to the relatively compressed depth of the production. Only in certain scenes, such as the ride to hell, did the compression become painfully evident. The direction gave much for the chorus and dancers to do, and that is apt as they as much as the soloists are the stars of this opera/oratorio/music drama. The chorus sang solidly and the dancers were bent on their acrobatics.

The largely successful deployment of the chorus and dancers unfortunately threw the singers into not always flattering relief. Ramon Vargas sang Faust relatively stylishly but could not fill the hall. Despite her poorer diction, Olga Borodina sang better but was visually unconvincing as Marguerite. One cringed when in the Epilogue her large body had to climb up the stairs to heaven. Better was the Mephistopheles of Ildar Abdrazakov, the real-life partner of Borodina. Perhaps fatigue had set in by the end of the run. Note that the cast was completely different from that of last year (see NYT link). James Conlon conducted efficiently and the orchestra played well, though I think the score’s lyricism was not always in abundant supply.

14 November, 2009

Theater: Robert Wilson - Quartett

Theater: Robert Wilson - Quartett

November 12, 2009
Brooklyn Academy of Music - Harvey Theater
Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe production, starring Isabelle Huppert

NY Times review

How do you "review" the collaboration between a playwright and a director who outdo each other in deconstruction? AND, how do you review Robert Wilson ((classical fans are most likely to know him as the director of Einstein on the Beach, which employs one of Philip Glass' greatest scores) at all? Well, I think the NYT theater critic has done a brilliant job here. For myself, I'd just add some thoughts of my own and provide some links. Who knows, perhaps one day the play shall travel to HK?

To begin to comprehend the whole thing, even to read the NYT review, it is necessary to have some familiarity with the original novel Les Liaisons Dangereuse, from which this play is derived ("pilfered" is perhaps just as appropriate a word metaphorically). In the wikipedia link you shall note that several films have been made to the original story. Chinese are most likely more familiar with the Korean and Steven Frears remakes. Should you have time, check out the original film, "period" Roger Vadim (Babarella is likely his most well known film), which incidentally employs Thelonious Monk's music to great effect.

It goes without saying Wilson's production is visually stunning as much as it is austere. Most bewildering was the effect of role change, when the voice stiffens up or softens to accomodate. This is made more complicated by deliberate manipulation of the amplified voice, adding elements of uncertainty and bestiality by turns. I love the story and have watched all three films before, yet I could not most of the time make out whether the woman or the man was behind the spoken lines. One just give in to the augmented effect of music and thetrical effects on words.

In the end I think the contribution of the playright is very little, and I even wonder about its quality. I personally do not think his fragmentation adds much to the original story. What it did provide was a lot of "obscenities" in the frequency the anatomical parts and some parts of the sexual act were impassionately detailed. No wonder there was a small but constant trikling out of the audience.

A passing mention on the mesmerizing actress Isabelle Huppert, who is probably best known in Aisa for her more recent film The Piano Teacher. I first encountered her in Claude Chabrol's wonderful Violette Noziere. How time flies.

I greatly enjoyed the score by Michael Galasso, who had just died. You may know him as contributor to the film scores of 重慶森林 and 花樣年華.

10 November, 2009

Concert Review: Bruckner Orchestra Linz - Dennis Russell-Davies

Concert Review: Bruckner Orchestra Linz - Dennis Russell-Davies

November 9, 2009, Avery Fisher Hall
Bruckner Orchestra Linz - Renaud Capucon - Dennis Russell-Davies
Glass - Bruckner

Addendum: NY Times review

This little known orchestra mean something special to me and I'm ecstatic to have caught up with them in NYC this time.

In the early eighties a friend and I went to the annual Brucknerfest at the Brucknerhaus in Linz. My friend is none other than the person who introduced me to Bruckner and Sibelius, composers who have remained my favorites unto today. Imagine, mostly bored undergradute students (Chinese, Koreans etc, and a senior citizen gwei-lo ex-ranked player!) at Columbia University playing pingpong every afternoon (even when there was no class)! My friend talked to me and one day lent me some LPs and I was an instant convert.

Linz is to Bruckner as Salzburg is to Mozart. It was rather bucolic and conservative/Austrian country in those days; I don't know about now. I still remember the Bruknerhaus where we went to hear a Bruckner symphony performed by this very orchestra, very ably. Most memorable was the way the hall reminded you of show time: instead of some kind of bell and gong thing, the mighty brass opening theme of Bruckner's 5th symphony was played repetitively. Effective and appropriate.

I have always liked Dennis Russell-Davies, familiar through attending the American Composer's Orchestra and the Brooklyn Philharmonic (see wikipedia entry too). So it was not surprising that the concert opened with the Violin Concerto No. 1 of Philip Glass, whose music he has always championed. From the word go, it was clear the orchestra is superbly attuned to this music. The hall was awash in Glass' throbbing and ostinating sound. With this kind of minimal music, when it's played played routinely one is apt to find it repetitive, yet when it's well played, as it was here with the greatest attention to the pulse, it is strangely mesmerizing. In the outer movements, one heard the power in reserve, imagined looming horizons and felt the wheel of time. Unfortunately, the power of the playing frequently drowned out the soloist Renaud Capucon, who played valiantly, with good intonation and feeling, but it was too evident he has too small a tone for the large hall (one even feels that on his recordings). Only in the tender slow movement was he able to project more.

Just a few bars into the Glass piece and knowing what was to come, I began to see the logic of the programing. With its frequent crescendos and decrescendos (some rather sudden) and ostinati, Glass really is not unlike Bruckner, even if they inhabit different spiritual worlds. The realization was a wonder, something that only happens in the concert hall, in intelligently planned programs.

The Bruckner 4th Symphony was played for all its worth, with only one caveat. The 1874 version was employed (they recorded it for Arte Nova and the complete box shall appear soon). Now, I had previously heard the 1874 version by Inbal (Teldec CD) many years ago, and I remember I was rather dis-oriented by it. Now, in the live performance I was able to really sink my teeth into the original version, much more than could have been done listening to it at home, where attention usually falters. I confess I still much prefer the 1888 version (what we usually hear, more or less), but I found the performance fascinating. Davies held a tight rein and was attuned to the constant dynamic changes, keeping the rather repetitive passages fresh while maintaining the long line. With the excellent orchestral playing, the performance held together rather well, lasting almost ninety minutes! My only caveat was the accurate but piercing trumpets which in balance overwhelmed the trombones (partly an acoustic problem I guess). Otherwise the orchestra played with great verve and character, refined and robust in turns.

The concert was VERY poorly attended, with most people in the orchestra and empty tiers. As I walked up to my usual third tier box a nice usher on the first tier told us we could sit there, in the more expensive seats. Like everyone else, I took advantage of that but afterward wondered whether that was a smart move. The sound I think is not as good lower down, sometimes reverberant. Sounds familiar?

As with Bruckner, not to mention in less polished original versions, after each movement many people left. Fortunately, those who remained managed to give the orchestra and Davies the curtains calls they deserved.

I shall get the Davies Bruckner cycle when it comes out. Let us not forget Capriccio still has a complete set by this orchestra, conducted by various conductors, and a fine set that is too, though more difficult to get now.