Monday, June 01, 2015

Augustin Hadelich wows audiences, Manfred Honeck shines with the New York Philharmonic

I should have known it would be a great night with the New York Philharmonic. They usually play well for Manfred Honeck (music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) and it was a stellar program of Johann Strauss, Mozart, and Brahms. The orchestra gave a spirited reading of the overture to Die Fledermaus, full of the melodies and dances that make the opera so popular. Then violinist Augustin Hadelich joined them for Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 and captivated the audience for a half hour. Hadelich's cadenzas were particularly impressive for being his own compositions and yet well suited to the concerto. I have rarely had the pleasure of hearing an artist at the beginning of his career with such control and artistry. I also enjoyed the enthusiasm of the basses and celli in the “Turkish” section of the last movement. The audience applause at the end of the concerto called for an encore. Mr. Hadelich delivered, with Paganini's Caprice No. 5 which he played with what seemed like incredible ease. His fingers flew up and down the fingerboard so fast that I could have sworn I saw wisps of smoke. I am certain that if he wanted to keep playing all night, we'd all still be there listening. 

Brahms' symphony no. 4 was the second half of the concert. Honeck led the orchestra through a dark, energetic and dramatic performance. The strings and winds sang in the second movement, and the third movement was lively and almost raucous. The passacaglia in the fourth movement brought the work to a stormy conclusion and the audience brought Honeck back out for several ovations. It was a truly impressive evening and a great end to my subscription for the season. Next up: Concerts in the Parks!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

I spent my whole weekend playing Carmen with the New York Opera Exchange. We played a show on Friday, two shows on Saturday, and a closing matinee on Sunday. We played in a church social hall with no central air conditioning and a too-cramped pit for the orchestra. It was ridiculously hot and on Saturday my back hurt and on Sunday my fingers were so sweaty it was hard to play. And yet I had the time of my life. I’ve had some amazing musical experiences in New York and this one is high on the list (along with playing Mozart’s The Magic Flute in February 2014). I am incredibly lucky to get to play music like this in this city. There are times when I wonder why I’m doing this, when I’m shlepping my viola through a crowded subway car on my way to another rehearsal. I will think of weekends like this one the next time I think about saying no and sitting at home watching TV.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A few quick thoughts on The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies

We need shorthand for this movie. BOFA? Five Armies?

The Star Wars trailer looks gorgeous in 3D. 

I'm a little sad. That's the last time I'll see a Tolkien book as a movie, unless someone convinces the Tolkien family to sell the rights to The Silmarillion to someone other than Peter Jackson.

It's nonstop action, except for a few scenes that move the plot along. But what action! I was never bored. It all makes sense, mostly. Most of the fighting is shot close up, so sometimes it’s hard to tell who's an elf, a dwarf, or an orc. That's my only complaint. I was smiling with giddiness, on the edge of my seat (because they keep changing things, I didn't know who might live or die), or near tears for most of the film.

Once again, the music cues are great. There's a really fantastic cue near the end. And the visual effects have never been better. 

Spoilers follow...

There's some effort to make more of a story about Thorin's madness but it's not really there. There’s not enough time dedicated to it to make it effective. Lee Pace has more to do as Thranduil here but he's still kind of an asshole. Or maybe I just think Lee Pace is an asshole because I watched a full season of Halt and Catch Fire.

I could have used more Dain. Billy Connolly was a great choice. More talk about military strategy than I expected. It was fun to see Galadriel and Elrond and even Saruman fighting again. Christopher Lee is in his 90s. I’m sure he didn’t do any stunts, but it was fun just seeing him up there on the screen. And fighting Gandalf! (He's fighting with them, not against them, though that would be cool to watch.) 

I still can't tell who half the dwarves were. Dwalin, Fili, and Kili have the most to do here. And Balin as Bilbo's friend. But the rest are just there. I think I know which one was Ori, and Bombur was the fat one. But the others are just faces. To be fair, I don’t think half the dwarves had lines in the book.

What was the resolution with Tauriel? She loses Kili. Does she go back to Mirkwood? Is she still captain of the guard? 

Also, I don't know if I like Legolas leaving for the North to look for Aragorn. How does he wind up in Rivendell to represent the woodland elves in the Fellowship? Does his dad send a raven? Does Thranduil have another heir to his throne?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Bartok and Bruckner with Bronfman and Gilbert

I love Anton Bruckner's symphonies and I rarely miss a chance to hear them played by the New York Philharmonic. The Philharmonic's stellar brass section is well-suited to Bruckner's sonorous chords and powerful blasts. But Bruckner's music is dense and complicated, with long phrases and meandering melodies. It's sometimes difficult even for an enthusiast like myself to fully enjoy a performance of one of his symphonies without checking my watch or thinking about what kind of gelato I'm going to get after the concert. If the musicians aren't fully involved, or the conductor is hesitant or unsure, the piece can be long and dull and have everyone looking for the exits well before the conclusion. Happily for me and a thrilled audience, Saturday night's concert was none of these things.

Before the Bruckner, the Philharmonic and soloist Yefim Bronfman gave a light and colorful performance of Bartok's Third Piano Concerto. I'm not that familiar with Bartok's music, but I enjoyed this concerto far more than I expected. Mr. Bronfman played with a sparkling quality that reminded me more of Beethoven than a 20th century work. But this playing fit well with the tone that Maestro Gilbert elicited from the orchestra. They brought Bartok's harmonies and angular melodies together with a fully satisfying result.

But that was just an appetizer. The performance of Bruckner's 8th Symphony (my favorite) was one of the most exciting and energetic experiences I've had with this music. Maestro Gilbert and the musicians had me hanging on every note. The brass section, augmented with four Wagner tubas, led the way and balanced well with the strings and winds. The first movement was menacing at times, the scherzo bright and almost cheerful. The third movement was an emotional ride from valley to peak and back. And the finale was every bit as terrifying as I wanted it to be. I felt chills when the music built to a crescendo and brass chords and timpani drumrolls filled the hall. I didn't want the piece to come to an end, even as Bruckner moved from darkness to light. This was a performance I don't want to forget.

P.S.: I had a scoop of pistachio and a scoop of hazelnut gelato at Grom after the concert.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Nielsen night at the Philharmonic

We attended the New York Philharmonic's performance of Carl Nielsen' Symphonies 5 and 6 last night, part of their multi-year Nielsen Project. Previous concerts featured his earlier symphonies and some of his concertos. They opened the concert with Nielsen' Maskarade Overture, which was a five minute overview of everything I love about Nielsen's music. It was frenetic and melodic, with loud boisterous blasts from the brass. 

Nielsen's Symphony No. 5 reminded me more of his 4th than of his other works. Like the 4th, the 5th had frantic string passages and long brassy melodies. But it also had persistent rattles from the snare drum, threatening to disrupt the proceedings more than once. Music Director Alan Gilbert spoke before the work and said that the music evoked a battle scene. While there was obvious conflict in the score, the musicians performed brilliantly in bringing Nielsen's music to life.

Nielsen's Symphony No.6 followed after intermission. This piece, in its New York Philharmonic premiere, was one of the more idiosyncratic symphonies I've heard. The opening movement was unmistakably Nielsen, but the composer took a turn into dissonance as the work progressed. The later movements had odd harmonies and twisting melodies from the wind section. The theme and variations in the last movement were the most unusual, as the theme journeyed through the instrument families, even taking a turn in the percussion section. There was a bit of disarray within the first violin section near the end of the piece, perhaps underscoring the Philharmonic's unfamiliarity with this particular work. But it was brief and for all I know part of the piece.

The orchestra and Maestro Gilbert enjoyed long ovations after both symphonies. It's clear that audiences love Nielsen's music and this orchestra is well suited to perform it. I've bought two of the planned four recordings in the Philharmonic's Nielsen cycle, and I look forward to picking up the last two when they are released.
Also, the Philharmonic handed out free "I [love] NIELSEN" buttons, and we were all too happy to wear ours.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Philip Smith retires from the New York Philharmonic

I really enjoyed this article in the New Yorker about Philip Smith's career as principal trumpet with the New York Philharmonic. I was at one of last week's concerts for Glenn Dicterow's final appearances with the orchestra, and I realized that I was also hearing Smith for the last time. Smith has been a joy to hear over the years, from Beethoven concertos to Honegger suites to Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 5. It's going to be odd to see and hear someone else playing those parts in the future.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A rant about cell phones at the New York Philharmonic

I would love to write about how much we enjoyed the music at Friday night's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 by the New York Philharmonic. We really did enjoy the music! It was sublime. But what almost marred the concert were the multiple cell phone alerts that went off during the symphony, especially in the last movement.

It had rained off and on all day. Starting at about 9:15 PM, in the middle of the symphony, we heard a faint emergency alarm noise, like the emergency broadcast system alert on TV. It was quiet so it was hard to distinguish it from the music. But when I heard another alarm a few minutes later, it was unmistakably a cell phone alert. These alerts were coming from all over the hall, but they were quiet enough that it didn't seem to reach the stage. We didn't know what was going on, but it was obvious that some people had not turned off or otherwise silenced their phones at the beginning of the concert.

In the middle of the utterly gorgeous final movement, one of these cell phone alerts went off in the row behind ours. It went quiet a few seconds later, but it was distracting. Then it went off again a few minutes later. This time, it almost caused a fight. I turned to look and the phone's owner was cursing under his breath and trying to shut off his phone. The man next to him said, above a whisper, "You have to leave! Get out! You have to leave!" To his credit, the man with the noisy phone left the hall. But it had already ruined the moment for me. I was distracted the rest of the piece, wondering if the next alert would sound close to the stage and force Mr. Haitink to stop the orchestra. Why is it always Mahler whose music is interrupted with cell phone noises? Thankfully, there were no more alarms and the symphony reached its glorious conclusion without interruption.

The alert turned out to be a flash flood warning for the metro New York area. With that many alarms going off during one of my favorite pieces, I hoped that it was actually the end of the world. Flooding was a disappointment.

It's clear that people either do not know how to silence their phones, or they don't care enough about common courtesy to bother to do so. It's infuriating and insulting to the rest of us who want to enjoy the music or movie or whatever we're doing without hearing phone noises. If you don't know how to silence your phone, you should turn it off. If you don't know how to turn off your phone, you shouldn't own one. I have to make an announcement about turning off phones before Saturday evening's New York Repertory Orchestra concert, and I have to restrain myself from turning it into a rant. Maybe if I post the rant here, I'll make a short and sweet announcement on Saturday.

I don't know what the solution is. Cell phone jammers are illegal. You can't force people to turn them off. All you can do is make these announcements and hope that people get better about following them. But this epidemic of ignorant, self-involved cell phone users at concerts makes me want to reconsider going to New York Philharmonic concerts. I can avoid people talking on their phones during movies by going to sparsely attended showings at out-of-the-way theaters. But I can't avoid idiots at Avery Fisher Hall. Not going to concerts might be my only option. And that's a shame.