30 April, 2011
29 April, 2011, Avery Fisher Hall
New York Philharmonic-Alan Gilbert-Emanuel Ax
After the great experience of the Mahler 9th with the Juilliard Orchestra under Gilbert, I was really looking forward to this concert, and my faith was not misplaced. Another reason for attending this concert was for the rare chance of hearing something by Messiaen, one of my favorite modern composers.
Emanuel Ax played first just the Pagodes from Debussy's Estampes, and this was immediately and purposefully followed by Messiaen's Couleurs de la Cite Celeste, a wonderful piece scored for a small orchestra without strings, in which Ax was the pianist. The Messiaen received an arduous and nuanced performance, the brass and percussion forces playing with stunning unanimity; the pedal points were grand and the bird songs took flight. Ax played well, but in both the Messiaen and Debussy I would have preferred a lighter sonority and more biting edge instead of his customary fat tone.
The Mahler Symphony No. 5 once again showed that Gilbert is already a great Mahlerian, and very much his own man. With a firm grasp of architecture, Gilbert delivered a cogent and granitic performance all the way through, with many fresh details illuminated along the way to thundering climaxes. As in his performance of the 9th, Gilbert stayed away from vulgarity and de-emphasized the "dance" elements, focusing on the "symphonic" aspects. At times the music felt relentless and one wished for just a little more swagger, though any lingering doubt would soon be swept away by the tightly woven proceedings. Unusually, in the adagietto Gilbert milked the violins a little more than usual, imparting almost a "Tristan und Isolde" feel to the proceedings.
In this big piece I did not care for the divided violins. While occasionally one could hear the counterpoints more clearly, more often the upper strings, though playing in a refined manner, did not have the critical mass to counter the heavy brass, which Gilbert might have encouraged too much. Nonetheless, a magnificent performance.
NY Times review
22 April, 2011
17 April, 2011, Carnegie Hall
Chicago Symphony Orchestra - Ricardo Muti
It's been an unduly long time since I last heard the CSO. I used to hear this orchestra a lot during the Solti era. The orchestra was incredibly brilliant and perfect, though just a bit too stern under the always driven Solti. I have never heard them since under Barenboim or Boulez. Either I missed them on my trips back to NYC in recent years or found the programs or guest conductors not suitable for my taste. It's too bad as they are a great orchestra for Mahler and Bruckner.
And it has been even longer since I heard Ricardo Muti. I still remember his mind-boggling performance of Alexander Nevsky with the Philadelphia Orchestra during my student days. One of the reasons why I stayed away from him is his narrow musical taste, which centered on operas and mostly classics, with almost nothing by Mahler and Bruckner in his repertoire.
From the opening of Cherubini's Overture in G one knew one was in for a treat. The woodwinds were refined and in complete harmony with the orchestra. The reading demonstrated perfect classicism, and one can see why Beethoven admired him. Although the work is not quite memorable, one could see why Muti would champion it (almost the lone one). As an opener it was well nigh perfect and whetted the appetite for the ensuing Liszt Les preludes, which received a noble reading. Here, the perfectly balanced reading of the performance successfully joined high drama with classical discipline. In both works Muti showed off his mettle as opera conductor: it was not necessary to resort to empty force for drama, and everything just sang.
As the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 went along, a feeling of familiarity came upon me. Why, it was uncannily like listening to Haitink's RCO version (Decca), except this was live, in sonically resplendent Carnegie Hall! Aside from fractionally slower tempo, the readings cannot really be distinguished. The same rather objective demeanor, smooth and perfect playing and perfect balance; in other words a rather "objective" reading, or a "literal" one if you wish, likely to please some and questioned by others. For myself, I enjoyed it immensely because under the perfection, the musicians played incredibly in ensemble, with great attention to details and expression, never in danger of sounding bland. The strings, led by the excellent concertmaster Robert Chen (whom you might remember was soloist with the HK Sinfonietta sometime back), played with a sonorous precision that was disarming. One could hear every little scoop with uncanny clarity, superhuman indeed! Everything was as perfectly played as I have ever heard any orchestra play any piece, but one still has to single out the tympanist, whose magnificently strong and shaded playing punctuated the glorious moments of climax.
The CSO seems to be as perfect as ever, but with an added human touch, under the new director.
NY Times review
Chicago Triburne review
Chicago Sun Times review
20 April, 2011
15 April, 2011, Avery Fisher Hall
Juilliard Orchestra - Alan Gilbert
Mahler Symphony No. 9
Let me get right to the point: this concert conducted by Alan Gilbert, whom I have never heard before, marked the most electrifying Mahler I have heard in years. At this early stage his directorship of the NYPO has not been without controversy but, judging from this concert, he is certainly a major talent. Gilbert has also been appointed director of the conducting department at Juilliard, in place of James DePreist. That too had its share of controversy.
Gilbert, a big man, conducted with volcanic energy and big gestures, a completely different approach from DePreist whom we heard in Mahler 5th just earlier. Boy, did the orchestra respond differently, playing with fervent ardor and complete concentration!
Yet the big gestures happily went in tandem with much precision and insight. The reading was brisk and propulsive in general, but aside from a few moments of convulsive abandon, dynamics were mostly well graded. Gilbert illuminated many fresh details along the way but kept things moving. Considering the force of conducting, there was an admirable lack of vulgarity. The inner movements particularly illustrated this. Gilbert's reading of the second movement literally had a sense of Mahler's marking, somewhat clumsy and very coarse; there was refreshingly little sense of the waltz, which many conductors love to exaggerate and distort. The Rondo though was more brute than Burleske. To nitpick, the two inner movements did not quite have their own characters, the closing adagio was a little fast and the ending felt a bit too abrupt.
The orchestra played wonderfully and most importantly conveyed to us, indeed held us captive by the titanic inner struggle that is Mahler. One would not exaggerate if one invoked heaven and earth, such was the force. I am glad somebody still conducts Mahler that way (certainly cannot be found in bland "critically praised" performances in HK), and look forward to hearing him in Mahler 5th with the NYPO soon.
Review at Blog classicalsource
17 April, 2011
14 April, 2011, Carnegie Hall
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra-Yuri Temirkanov-Alisa Weilerstein
The St Petersburg is one of my favorite orchestras and I think Yuri Temirkanov is under-rated (as his predecessor Mravinsky is probably over-rated overall). Fortunately, they tour extensively (a reality for Russian orchestras, to earn hard cash), and it is not inoften that I get to enjoy them. NYC sees them often offering multiple concerts, and I attended the second of a pair.
The opener, Rimsky-Korsakov's Prelude to Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, received a wonderfully atmospheric reading, the gentle rumbling in the strings and pliant woodwind solos balanced in perfection. This is the kind of thing only Russians bring off, and much more enjoyable in the concert hall than on records, an illustration of the fact that, no matter how good your hifi is, a live atmosphere is most difficult to reproduce.
I have previously sung the praise of cellist Alisa Weilerstein. She proved a more than capable soloist in Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. Neither her playing nor the accompaniment were the most razor-sharp: contours were a bit softened rather than (over) etched, phrases more flowing than emphatically punctuated. In her solo moments Weilerstein was more than a bit indulgent sometimes, but one admired her big temperament. Although one missed a little the sardonic wit of Shostakovich, the reading was eminently satisfying for the beautiful playing and emotional delivery.
Brahms has been previously featured by Temirkanov. His Fourth Symphony received a fresh reading from the Russian forces. One hesitates to say they brought a unique Russian quality to the reading. Instead, I think their innate musicianship and spontaneity stand them apart from the crowd. No risk of cliche's nor routine here. Even more than the previous pieces, the musicians gave a lesson on how to listen to and play with each other, while being utterly colorful in their solo's. Esnemble was not always immaculate, but the freshness of approach carried the day.
The encore was a magnificently noble rendition of Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations. It felt like an elegy.
14 April, 2011
3 April, 2011, Flushing Town Hall
(Carnegie Hall presents)
Parker Quartet Official Site
No matter your inclinations, New Yorkers are spoilt for choices. On this day, I had to choose between this concert and the Ebene Quartet at Manhattan's Town Hall. Since subway maintenance made a trip into town more difficult, I chose to stay within my neighborhood, and it marked the first time I was inside the charming and historic Flushing Town Hall.
The Parker Quartet, one of those upcoming ensembles that play both classics as well as modern music, have garnered excellent reviews wherever they go. The ensemble also reflect the trend in chamber music of an increasing number of musicians with Asian roots, one of the reasons why I went also.
The opening Haydn Op 74/1 immediately struck me as masterly playing. As someone said in one of their video clips, if you can play Haydn you can play anything. Daniel Chong led well with determined but supple phrasing. It is a tribute to him, and the ensemble, that nothing stuck out as in lesser Haydn playing, which happens more than often even to famous ensembles. The limelight was at times stolen by the wonderfully soulful playing of violist Jessica Bodner. The steady second violinist Karen Kim and the vigorous playing of cellist Kee-Hyun Kim filled out the wonderful ensemble sound.
Then came Kurtag's 12Microludes, which were miniatures that can perhaps be enjoyed only in the concert hall. I feel these do not quite measure up to Webern's efforts, but they were enjoyable.
Without intermission, the quartet gave a fluent reading of Brahms Op 51/2. The often dense textures of Brahms were rendered with utter lucidity, the playing crisp but refined and unhurried. If these young players did not linger on the romantic or "autumnal" aspects, they managed to avoid heaviness and never risked sounding portentous.
Judged by their Haydn and Brahms, whose quartets are most difficult to bring off, the players are mature beyond their years, surely an ensemble to watch, and savor.
09 April, 2011
March 25, Avery Fisher Hall
Juilliard Orchestra - James DePreist
Mahler Symphony No. 5
With serious jet lag I attended this concert. This was not the first time I had heard the Juilliard Orchestra play Mahler 5th, but was the first time I heard conductor James DePreist.
Paralysed by polio from the waist down in his twenties, this incredible hulk, nephew of alto Marian Anderson and chairman of Juilliard's Conducting Department, graciously conducted the school orchestra. His right hand gave long, fluid beats, but his left hand employed a large number to jittery and flickering gestures, highly unusual to say the least.
Overall, this account of M5 was a fine one, superior to the 2008 one I heard conducted by James Conlon. While still an objective rather than emotive reading, it was fluent and flowing, with good ensemble and attack. Although not the last word in heaven-storming Mahlerian angst, the symphonic treatment satisfied but did not quite deliver the full emotional wallop, not quite up to the level of yet another previous JO Mahler performance, the 2008 Mahler 1st conducted by Roberto Abbado.
Curiously, in another 2 weeks there will be yet another Mahler performance by the JO, this time the 9th, conducted by alumnus Alan Gilbert, now director of NYPO. I cannot wait!
Added April 14, 2011:
NY Times review
08 April, 2011
March 11, 2011, Shenzhen Concert Hall
Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra - Christian Ehwald - Bhawani Modennsad
Mahler Symphony No.3
深圳交響樂團 - 深圳高级中学百合少年合唱团 - 深交女生合唱团
Given that SSO often make changes at the last minute and that the website is woefully lagging behind in information, I was skeptical that the inaugural concert would feature the gargantuan Mahler Third. A call to SSO a week before the performance confirmed that indeed that was to take place. I told them that they really should list the names of the soloist and the choirs on the website. Well, they did for the soloist but not the choirs.
Imagine my excitement that the concert did materialize! The choirs were listed in the program book, but the contralto had changed from Carolyn Masur listed on the website to Bhawani Moennsad. Considering this was the Spring inaugural concert, attendance was a little low.
The first movement went well technically after the secure start by the brass. The orchestra sounded empowered but a little cautious. The proceedings became more fluent after this when the woodwinds started to gel together. Indeed, one of the most impressive aspect of this performance was how well the instruments, particularly the woodwinds, played to each other with great character, indeed evocative of flowers and animals if one were to invoke Mahler's own words. The dialogues felt like chamber music and were precious. In these inner movements the SSO/Ehwald got to the heart of the music much better than the HKPO/EdW did, and I greatly enjoyed it. In passages of more overt brilliance the SSO sounded more together than their previous Mahler outings, less powerful than HKPO perhaps but no less enjoyable due to the fluid conducting of Ehwald. The choirs sang well and were not obviously embarrased by diction, no mean achievement! One only wished there were more boys in the student choir; less than a handful is not quite enough! The soloist is probably more a mezzo than alto, so although she sang beautifully, the lower registers lacked power and color.
This was the best Mahler I have heard from this orchestra and I truly enjoyed it. It is the mark of a good conductor to focus the listener on the music. It is too bad that all too often with over-rated "maestro's" everyone, including the conductor, critics, sympathizers at el all point out the inadequacies of the orchestra and the hall as an excuse for why the music failed to move. This performance moved me, and that is more important than anything else.
The performance received scant coverage from the press. Some I was able to dig up:
07 April, 2011
Note: I am a fan of conductor Chritian Ehwald, who's has done great work with the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra. Under Ehwald, the orchestra has already performed the first six Mahler symphonies. If this were HK, he would have been touted as a godsend, a great Mahlerian. I just hope his good work continues and was happy to find an interview of him in the local newspaper. Shenzhen is not an international city and sorely lacks good English media, which makes me admire the work of Ehwald even more. 默默耕耘，that is silently doing good deeds, would be an apt and noble accolade in Chinese for this wonderful conductor.
专访指挥家爱华德：让乐队成员学会彼此聆听来源: 深圳特区报 作者: 王俊
2011年的深交首场音乐季演出，演奏的是马勒《第三交响曲》，场面恢弘，效果震撼。颇具意味的是，三年前，爱华德作为中国首位外籍音乐总监入 主深交时举行的首场演出，演奏的同样是马勒的作品，当时是《第五交响曲》。在自己与深交的两段合同期伊始，爱华德都选择公认为演奏难度之王的马勒作品，是 不是有什么寓意呢？
俗话说：“外来的和尚会念经”。让这支成长中的城市乐团发生脱胎换骨的变化，爱华德究竟施展了什么样的魔法？他透露道，秘诀就是让乐队的每一位 演奏员学会互相聆听，用拉室内乐的感觉感受他人的声音，协调彼此的音量与音色，而不是你拉你的、我拉我的。这样，乐队才能成为一个整体，传达出的音乐才能 打动人。
从交响乐基础深厚的德国来到交响乐文化并不普及的深圳，屡屡碰到这种现象，爱华德会不会感到失望？令记者意外的是，爱华德对此并不以为意。他 说：“其实乐章之间鼓掌在欧洲也会有的，问题不是很大。我只考虑能否把音乐内涵传达给观众，观众能够感受到我们表达的意思和音乐传达的东西，在观众与乐队 之间引起共鸣就可以了。音乐应该成为轻松的东西。只要观众喜欢，乐章间鼓掌没什么关系的。”
爱华德：马勒就是我喜爱的作曲家之一，舒伯特、贝多芬都对我有较大影响。我比较倾向于浪漫派的音乐，不过作为音乐总监，我还是希望乐团能够兼顾不同的风格，比如现代派的音乐应当有所涉猎。(深圳特区报记者 王俊／文 齐洁爽／图)