Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New York Philharmonic Opening Night Live Blog

It's opening night for the 2009-10 season of the New York Philharmonic. It's also Alan Gilbert's debut as music director of the orchestra, taking over for Lorin Maazel. Tonight's program begins with Magnus Lindberg's EXPO, a world premiere of a composition for the Philharmonic. Renee Fleming will appear as soloist for Olivier Messiaen's Poemes pour Mi, and the concert concludes with Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

I'm watching this concert on PBS, from the comfort of my couch. I could have gone to Lincoln Center to watch the concert on a big screen with my fellow music lovers, but I decided to stay home for a few reasons. So, here I am. Updates will appear at the bottom, since I don't have sophisticated live-blogging software at my disposal.

7:59: The TV is on PBS and channel Thirteen wants me to know how valuable I am as an audience member. Thankfully, it's not pledge week.

8:02: Jack Donaghy is the new host of the Philharmonic's broadcasts. I saw Alec Baldwin at a concert last June but I wasn't allowed to talk to him. Next time, I'm asking him about Button Classic.

8:04: Alan Gilbert is wearing a white tie & tails. When I've seen him conduct before, he's gone with a black smock-like thing. And they're opening with the national anthem. All the musicians stand up, except for the cellists.

8:06: I don't know anything about Magnus Lindberg, so I'll have to refer to his Wikipedia page. He's the Philharmonic's composer-in-residence for the next few years so I expect I'll get to know his music soon enough.

8:10: Looks like Gilbert went with the 19th century seating arrangement for the orchestra. The 1st and 2nd violins are on either side of the conductor, at the edge of the stage, the violas and cellos are in the middle, and the basses are on the conductor's left, behind the cellos and 1sts.

8:14: I like this new work. It's modern, but melodic and tonal. Interesting harmonies, too.

8:19: Renee Fleming appears in a picture-in-picture window to talk about the Messiaen piece. The composer wrote this work, a song cycle, as a tribute to his wife and their young marriage. We played one of Messiaen's compositions last season in NYRO. I didn't really care for it, but it wasn't the worst thing I've ever played. Faint praise, I know.

8:22: Uh oh. Of course, the text is in French and it's subtitled. I have to pay attention to what's going on now.

8:24: The "Thirteen" logo in the bottom right of my screen obscures some of the words in the subtitles. That's OK, I don't care that much what Fleming is singing.

8:29: My mother told me about a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert she and my father attended many years ago where the orchestra was playing one of Messiaen's works. Apparently the audience reception was so bad that the conductor had to ask patrons not to leave and to give the piece a chance.

Wait, what is this song about? That last line was something like "chunks of flesh will pursue you and haunt your dreams." I thought this was a song cycle about a happy marriage?

8:32: I found the program notes on the Philharmonic's web site. Here's the text I just saw flashed on my screen (and in my nightmares later):

"Bloody scraps would follow you into the
shadows Like vomitous retching, And the noisy rapping of rings on the
unmendable door Would sound the rhythm of your despair."

OK, then. Messiaen wrote the words as well as the music, by the way.

8:39: That was cool. The piccolo had an out-of-time solo, during which Gilbert stopped conducting with his right hand (the one with the baton) and cued the soloist with his left hand, almost like he was teasing the melody from the instrument. It's hard to describe, obviously.

This next song is not what I would have expected. Messiaen writes about two people in battle. But I think it's really about sex. It's the line about "sacramental warriors" and the other one about how two people become one. Messiaen was deeply religious, and many of his works were influenced by Catholicism. But he also viewed sexual love as a divine gift (according to Wikipedia, my sole source of Messiaen facts tonight).

8:48: "Oh, some flowers for Renee Fleming!" The TV voice-over announcer sounded surprised. The soloist always gets flowers.

8:51: That's intermission. Fleming and Baldwin are talking about the Messiaen work. Fleming says the work needs some preparation for the listener so you can know the story behind Messiaen and his wife. That would have helped with the warrior song, I'm sure.

8:56: Gilbert and Baldwin are discussing Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Gilbert says the piece is as fresh today as it was in 1830 when it was premiered. The interview ends with that little awkward thing where the two men stand there waiting for the director to tell them they're clear.

9:00: For anyone reading this who doesn't know the story told by Berlioz's work, here's a quick summary I wrote for a friend a few years ago:

Hector Berlioz was a French composer in the mid-19th century. This work is an excellent example of "programmatic music," music that tells a story without words. At 23, Berlioz was hopelessly in love with an actress, Harriet Smithson. She became the inspiration for this symphony. The story behind the music is that an artist, also desperately in love, and with an active imagination, has taken an overdose of opium. He falls into a fevered series of dreams, the contents of which are described by the different movements of the symphony. Each movement contains a theme, called the idee fixe, which represents the girl he (the artist) loves. (It's the same theme in each movement, so once you hear it, you will recognize it each time it returns.) The second movement is a ball, during which the artist sees the girl at the dance. The third movement has them in the countryside, calling out to each other. In the last two movements, the artist first dreams that he is being hanged for murdering his beloved, and then that he is the guest of honor at a witches' sabbath, where the idee fixe appears in a grotesque transformation into a dance tune.

As far as Berlioz was concerned, he wrote letters to Smithson but she ignored him for years and eventually left Paris. Several years later, she heard this symphony and realized she was the reason behind it. She met Berlioz and they were married in 1833. Unfortunately, they divorced nine years later -- they weren't such a good match.

9:04: Cartoonist Richard Thompson wrote a blog post earlier this week about Berlioz as a subject for drawing and caricature. I like what he came up with (scroll down the page).

9:09: This is what I love about Alan Gilbert at the podium. I know the members of the Philharmonic have played this piece dozens, if not hundreds, of times. It's difficult to get excited about a work that's so familiar. But he brings a fresh spirit to the music. Maybe it's because he's new and new to them so they have to pay closer attention to his gestures and interpretation. But I'd prefer to think that he's imparting a younger, more vibrant energy to the orchestra.

9:15: I'm "air-conducting." I'm surprised it took me this long. I'd go get my score of the symphony from the bedroom, but then I'd have to stop the live-blog.

9:26: I almost bought tickets for tonight's concert. As a subscriber, the Philharmonic sent me numerous e-mails about opening night. The ticket prices weren't as outrageous as I expected. But I'm going next Tuesday for Mahler's 3rd Symphony, and I've spent plenty of money on the Philharmonic already this year. Plus, I think I would have had to go in my tuxedo and get my picture taken for all the high society magazines.

9:32: I could not disagree more, Mort. The only thing I'll grant you is that the audio for this concert has little depth, so it's hard to get a sense of what this concert sounds like in the hall. But I don't hear Rachmaninoff at all. As for the clarinet solo, I was about to point out that this is the first opening night in decades where Stanley Drucker hasn't been playing clarinet.

9:40: Sorry, I got caught up in the March to the Scaffold.

9:45: More air-conducting here. I used to "conduct" this piece in my room in front of my stereo, imagining I was in front of a real orchestra.

9:52: Bravo! I love a slam-bang ending.

Well, that was fun. Maybe next time I'll live-blog a Met Opera broadcast. Thanks for watching and listening along with me tonight.


Mort Guffman said...

This new conductor is terrible. The orchestra is all over the place; not playing together, no unified interpretation, playing Berlioz like it's Rachmaninoff, so pro forma, just awful. The best part about this was the clarinet solo (my boy Mark Nuccio) in the third movement.

Mort Guffman said...

Berlioz is supposed to be full of dynamic contrast -- all of this is so syrupy. Wow, can the horns play any less in tune at the beginning of the 4th movement?

Mort Guffman said...

I'll give you that the audio might be super compressed for the TV broadcast. But then again, I am used to hearing a lot more contrast under Maazel. Also, I may be spoiled in that my favorite recording of this piece is on period instruments at the hall where it was premiered.

Mort Guffman said...

In any event, thanks for giving me a forum to vent in. Enjoy the season...